Monday, February 11, 2013

Money Matters, but So Does Avoiding Red Tape

Cross-posted from the original over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

“There’s no such thing as free money,” Joanne, a middle-aged African-American mother of two sitting across the table from me declared. “But for me, getting this college degree depends on whether I have enough money to afford it.”

Solving the problem of college affordability lies at the heart of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $3.3 million Reimagining Aid Delivery & Design project, which has spurred a series of reports covered weekly in the news this year. While the reports run the gamut of possible suggestions, from tying aid to students’ academic backgrounds to replacing the Pell Grant with a federal-state matching grant, they all have a similar refrain: Whatever the solution, it must be cheaper—it simply isn’t possible to request any additional spending.

Similarly, when I visit Washington policy makers and talk about the needs of the Pell Grant recipients I’ve been studying for the past five years, and describe how financial scarcity is affecting their lives, most listen sympathetically and then apologize, sadly, noting there’s no more money to be found. I get it: They are pragmatists and politicians, unfailingly realistic, and simply asking me to get in line with the new normal.

So if there’s “no free money” and yet more money is essential, what are we to do? First, it’s time to search for answers outside of Washington. And second, we have to consider the possibility of finding solutions outside the narrow higher-education-policy space. Maybe we can learn new things in communities across the country, where hard-working people are thinking beyond the usual silos, connecting the dots to develop new approaches.

Back when I was a graduate student, I spent time conducting research at community colleges across the country as Bill Clinton’s infamous welfare reform was enacted. I watched as programs providing supports to low-income, parenting, community-college students were shuttered, in the name of a “work first” approach to poverty alleviation.  While many students were receiving federal financial aid, the additional child care and transportation they got met their many unmet needs above and beyond the stated institutional “costs of attendance.” Welfare reform ended those supports, and widened the gulf between America’s education and poverty-reduction agenda. College for all, my colleagues and I wrote in our book, Putting Poor People to Work (Russell Sage, 2006), was clearly more hype than reality.

In 1998, as welfare reform was getting under way, Joanne began attending classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She came for a few sessions and was excited about the opportunity to get an education, but quickly realized that the cost of her 45-minute subway commute was draining her budget. She began hopping the subway turnstiles, trying to stay in school and get by. She looked for help at BMCC and didn’t find it. And after a month, she decided that hopping turnstiles wasn’t OK, wasn’t what she really was about, and she dropped out of school.

As advocates like those at the Center for Law and Social Policy have pointed out, transportation is a common barrier to community-college success, as is a lack of housing and food. But usually, community colleges do not have the power or resources to provide vouchers or free rides, nor are they in the business of coordinating social services. And post-welfare reform, they were explicitly disarmed from doing so.

Fast-forward more than a decade. The recent recession hit Joanne hard. She lost her job, and in 2011 re-enrolled at BMCC to try again. This time, as she walked through the doors of her school, she saw a new green sign: Single Stop USA. She walked in a Pell Grant recipient, and walked out equipped with food stamps, transportation vouchers, and child-care benefits.

This wasn’t a typical city social-services office with long lines and suspicious counselors who often treat poor women like Joanne with disrespect. Right in the middle of campus, between her classes, she had a 15-minute appointment with an electronic evaluation process facilitated by a knowledgeable counselor who equipped her with the money and support it seems she needed to make a degree possible. This spring, she will complete her associate degree.

Single Stop sprang into being in the years following welfare reform, arising to pull together the fragile strings of the remaining social safety net and knit them well enough to give the working poor a bit of a landing. Originally located in community-based organizations in New York City, where it was homegrown by the Robin Hood Foundation, in the last three years, the small Harlem-based nonprofit has found homes in 17 community colleges around the country.

In the last 12 months alone, Single Stop served almost 20,000 students. All told, its efforts brought an additional $38-million into the hands of those students, not by increasing the Pell Grant or encouraging them to take on debt, but simply by helping them navigate complicated social services to get the benefits already allocated for their use. Using trained professionals who help students see the importance of efficiently using existing resources to push toward a college degree, and by working closely with colleges to promote a focus on the whole student in order to promote academic success, Single Stop complements the development of both individuals’ soft skills and their financial resources. For every $1 the program costs, it brings $14 in benefits students wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Can we assume that additional money is pushing students like Joanne toward degrees? It’s too soon to tell—there haven’t yet been any rigorous comparison-group evaluations. Thus far this year, I’ve tried to find out by visiting six community-college campuses in New York and Miami where Single Stop is functioning, and interviewing administrators, staff, and students.

Good stories like Joanne’s abound. So do horror stories of tremendous need—community-college students sleeping on grates, suffering strokes, going without food for days—which would make anyone wonder about cruelty of the college-for-all rhetoric unbuttressed by sufficient support.

But even before demonstrating clear impact, Single Stop USA has already proved one thing: If money really matters for college degrees, we may be able to find a lot more of it by bridging unreasonable divides between public agencies, reducing paperwork, and repositioning the community college as a point of connection as well as education. That’s a pragmatic solution we may be all able to live with, and it’s a good place to start.