I have made a major shift in my career…I used to wake up each morning thinking about alcohol abuse and hazing…now I wake up thinking about hunger and homelessness. Both are important issues facing higher education and we need to eradicate both. Given the population that I have the privilege of serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, ensuring that students have enough to eat and a secure place to rest their head at night is a very real issue that threatens our very talented and persistent student body.
UMass Boston is a research, urban, public university serving local and global students. Our students are largely Pell Grant recipients (47%) and first generation (61%). Nearly 60% of our incoming freshman class speak a language other than English at home. Most students work - with 32% freshman and 55% seniors reporting they work more than 20 hours per week off-campus. Over 25% of our students have reported some level of food insecurity and nearly 10% have reported being homeless since starting college or not knowing whether they could continue sleeping in their current place for 2 weeks. These students report that housing and food instability have a profound impact on class attendance and performance in class.
Strengthening and Aligning Our Support Services
In 2012 UMass Boston launched U-ACCESS, the Office of Urban and Off-Campus Support Services. Through the grassroots effort of a staff member and a small cadre of volunteers, U-ACCESS was able to establish a food pantry and provide assistance to students who were experiencing homelessness, emancipation from foster care, parental neglect, domestic violence, legal issues, and financial emergencies. While the early efforts were significant, the model was unsustainable without a succession plan for the community resource network.
Serendipitously, representatives from Single Stop arrived on our doorstep. Single Stop provides a “one-stop shop” for nonacademic wraparound services and alternative sources of financial support for low-income students. Recently Single Stop decided to expand to 4-year colleges to connect students to public benefits, including SNAP and other community resources, to help ensure that students have the support they need to persist and graduate. By enabling students to tap into existing unspent federal and local resources, such as SNAP, that can be used as a supplemental form of financial aid, our program helps students graduate and get the skills necessary to enter the workforce. Given the demographics of our student body and Single Stop’s success at a Boston area community college, our Vice Provost for Student Academic Services and I were happy to meet with them to learn more. After our meeting, we both agreed that Single Stop would fill a great void on our campus and that I would take the lead to see how we could make it work.
Our new Associate Dean of Students and I had an opportunity to learn more about Single Stop and evaluate the potential impact it could have on our campus. After our initial evaluation we knew we needed more input from our leadership. I reached out to my fellow Vice Chancellors and thankfully received positive feedback about expanding our U-ACCESS program in partnership with Single Stop.
Building Our Capacity
Single Stop asked that we sign a letter of intent, which would enable them to seek funding from private sources. In some instances, Single Stop has helped campuses fund the project with corporate or foundation donors. Implementation estimates include costs for required research, building technology, and training staff, as well as capacity for a staff member (case worker) who would help students apply for benefits, track applications, examine data, and confirm receipt of benefits. Our launch would include our current staffing line in U-ACCESS and a larger cadre of volunteers. Given the needs of our students and the support of the Vice Chancellors, our Chancellor gave the approval to move forward for one year. After the letter of intent was signed, and Single Stop was able to secure a grant, Single Stop came to campus to present to colleagues and conduct a focus group with students.
Negotiating the contract issued by Single Stop provided the opportunity to address privacy of student data. Since the technology belongs to Single Stop, we engaged lawyers and IT personnel to assist in protecting student data, university liability, and other interests. This piece of the process took almost daily attention by our Associate Dean, whose persistence and legal background kept the process moving steadily toward our goal to launch by fall 2017.
Ready… Set… Go…
With a signed contract, Single Stop moved quickly to work with our newly appointed Coordinator of Student Welfare, Associate Dean, enrollment services, and student affairs to develop a plan of action for the fall launch. This required entering community contacts into the system that Single Stop was developing, but with a community college in the greater Boston area already using Single Stop, regional resources had already been identified. Single Stop staff continued to research additional local resources. In addition, a marketing plan was developed to target students and educate faculty and staff to refer students to U-ACCESS for these services. Initial conversations were positive and even revealed some professors interested in including U-ACCESS information on their syllabi.
There are many moving parts in this process to make the services we offer robust; however, I believe we are in a much better place than we were a year ago to assist our needy and vulnerable students. It is too soon to tell how successful we will be in stemming the tide of hunger and homelessness, yet we are optimistic. In 2012, Single Stop’s community college sites drew down benefits and services worth over $1,947 per student served and preliminary data indicate that students who access Single Stop services are more likely to stay in school.
Our students deserve to succeed at all of our colleges and universities. Our country needs the students who truly live the challenges of poverty, and lack of access, to become leaders for change. I am hopeful that partnering with Single Stop will provide a trajectory toward realizing the vision we have at UMass Boston to transform lives through our unique educational experience.