As part of an ongoing series, Florida College Access Network will profile the innovative efforts of our partners to make college readiness, access, and success a reality for all Floridians. This week we follow Single Stop USAMiami Dade College, an ally in Goal 2025, a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Florida residents who hold a high-quality degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2025.

Groceries or graduation? That’s the phrase used by Single Stop USA-Miami Dade College to describe the choices faced by first-generation community college students who must juggle classes, jobs and family obligations. It’s an unfair choice that leads many community college students to abandon their studies altogether. Committed to knocking down these financial barriers, this unique organization has pioneered a novel way to get public benefits to struggling college students, helping them to stay in higher ed and graduate.

“We do everything we can so that you as a student can focus on school,” says Barbara Pryor who heads the Miami Dade College branch of Single Stop USA. “If a student has a child, we can find subsidized childcare. If a student is homeless, we help with shelter. If a student is hungry, we find food banks. If a student has mental health issues, suicidal ideation, we find counseling services immediately.”

Serious about slashing through red tape, Single Stop USA promises that within a 15-minute visit, a student can be screened and signed up for public benefits ranging from child care, SNAP/food stamps, legal counseling, public health care and financial advising. Traditionally, getting these benefits meant slogging through wait lines in multiple offices. Thanks to their supercharged approach, Single Stop USA has delivered over $14 million in benefits to nearly 10,000 students on the MDC campus since 2010.

Single Stop USA first came to life in New York City in 2001 before going national in 2007. Over the past six years, its model has expanded in a large number of regional community centers such as hospitals, food pantries and even New York’s Rikers Island jail. With a cash infusion from the White House Social Innovation Fund, Single Stop USA has been able to pursue its innovative model on community college campuses, where its speedy delivery of aid can make a real impact on student graduation rates. The non-profit sought out Miami-Dade College for its large, socioeconomically diverse student body of more than 170,000 students.

“We know that the fastest vehicle to move individuals from low-income to the working middle class is the community college. But we also know that nationally, only 30% of students complete their two-year degree,” says Pryor. “We know that first-generation students who have to work while attending are more likely to drop out. Having Single Stop USA reduces the risk of students dropping out early.”

The agency’s model pairs new-school technology and old-school face time. Its proprietary web-based software, Benefits Enrollment Network, plumbs public benefits databases. Yet access to that information ultimately comes by leveraging traditional community relationships. For instance, it has cultivated a close institutional partnership with the Florida Department of Children & Families that has resulted in DCF granting an ‘enhanced partner view’ to Single Stop USA’s benefit screening. “What does that mean?” asks Barbara Pryor. “That means within 45 minutes, we can pull your report and tell you specifically what documents you are missing and need to get completed instead of just being told your application is incomplete without explaining why.”

Single Stop USA isn’t limited directly to students. Their services have also been utilized by MDC professors who want to follow up on students who have stopped attending their classes.  “Some professors will call us when the student hasn’t been showing up in class, asking if there’s anything we can do,” says Pryor. “In one case, it turned out the student not showing up was homeless.  We were able to track that student down before they withdrew. We were able to intervene, get them services and keep them enrolled and going to class.”

Benefits, of course, will always remain a means to the ultimate end: graduating students from college and prepping them to successfully enter the workforce. That’s why the Miami branch of Single Stop USA also provides a mentoring program for first-time college students. Using a structured curriculum and software from iMentor, the program pairs students with accomplished local professionals, using the same interests and personality type algorithms deployed by Emails between mentors and mentees are monitored through a web system, making sure their appointments and progress goals are completed. “It’s intrusive, in a really good sort of way,” adds Pryor.

“All of our mentors have an associate of arts degree or higher, some of our mentors are alumnus,” says Pryor.  “They range from police chiefs to campus presidents and deans to Bank of America executives, hospital administrators, lawyers, educators, there’s a wide variety. Can you imagine getting a college president as your mentor?”

For generations now, community colleges served as a gateway for low-income college students while anti-poverty programs have been aiding low-income families with food assistance, child and health care. By tackling both these issues at once, Single Stop USA has not only created a supercharged safety net, but they have potentially re-oriented the mission of student services. Some call it a safety net. Some call it an extra push. What it actually may be is an effective mimicking of the resources that well-off college students have successfully relied on at traditional four-year universities for generations: close mentorship and consistent financial support. So by harnessing technology and community partnerships, Single Stop USA helps community college make good on their promise of creating socioeconomic change and graduating financially self-sufficient students.

“What makes our model so unique and successful is that we are housed under student services. It’s infused into the whole college system,” says Pryor. “There are a lot of students who can’t afford to get to campus, let alone pay for gas.  If there’s a one-stop center on campus, we can alleviate some of the stresses they may have.”

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