Over the last few years, community colleges across the country have implemented programs surrounding the goals of increasing student success and retention rates. While efforts such as Guided Pathway Models and new approaches to student advising are being implemented to assist in creating higher graduation rates, the discussion around students who require more than quality advising sessions and career realization is becoming more and more predominant.

Institutions are being awakened by the reality that students with low socio-economic status have needs that exceed existing solutions, such as scholarships and college pay-for-completion programs. Their needs require social services and interventions that are more in-depth, personalized and complex. Institutions that have made persistence and retention a priority are now faced with the reality that innovative approaches are critical to ensure that students with high social services needs are able to complete what they start.

Students within these populations often experience outside factors that will impact their ability to perform well in the classroom. A study from Community College Equity Assessment Lab found that approximately 1/3 of community college students experience housing instability and 12 percent are facing the threat of hunger.

For students who are struggling to pay rent or buy food for their families, survival is prioritized over an education. These students are more likely to miss class or homework assignments, and lack the time, transportation and resources to return to campus for tutoring or go to a learning center – even if they are motivated to be successful. By identifying ways an institution can provide the social services the in-need students require to survive, the College can give these students the additional tools they need to be successful.

Student populations differ among colleges across the county, and often, so do the social services available from government and nonprofit organizations. There is not a universal model of social services that institutions can immediately adopt; it needs to be built to fit the specific needs of that school’s students.

For example, for a college that has a high number of parents enrolled, one solution may be to open an on-site daycare center so students who don’t have a babysitter won’t have to choose between caring for their children and pursuing an education.  Another roadblock could be a lack of computers at home and in the community, so students may need a computer lab that is accessible all day in order to complete their homework.

Amarillo College, located in Amarillo, Texas, is an example of a school that has created a social services model that truly improves the college experience for its students. The City of Amarillo’s poverty rate is at 23 percent and more than 50 percent of the student body is defined as “food insecure” – meaning they often skip meals in order to pay bills or feed their families. Because a majority of the student population is over the age of 25, there is a high number of students who are working multiple jobs to pay for college and support their families.

The College’s leadership recognized that there is a high need for individualized social support for the students. There had to be services in place that could help the students who could not focus in class because they were hungry, who couldn’t maintain basic hygiene because those items can’t be bought with WIC or food stamps, or who couldn’t afford clothing for an upcoming interview.

Amarillo College created the Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC), which houses a food pantry, clothing closet, baby resource room, social services, and Adult Students program. In addition to handing out non-perishable food items, hygiene items, and clothing, the ARC is staffed by licensed social workers who can provide individualized interventions for students.

“As a college, we have a responsibility to our students to do everything in our power to help them succeed. That requires more than providing an education – we have to be the changing force in a student’s life.” said Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College.

When the ARC opened in 2016, it served approximately 600 students in one semester. In the Fall 2017 semester, that number skyrocketed to nearly 2,000 students in over 3,500 student visits. The College has also seen an improvement in retention rates for students who utilize the center’s services.

While there is no one-size-fits-all model to help students persist through to graduation, there are goals that all colleges should strive to achieve. One of those goals is working to remove all barriers that will prevent success – both on and off campus. Students, especially those from low socio-economic households, require personalized support and innovative solutions to help them overcome barriers.