On a quiet evening in October, prominent members of Philadelphia’s government, nonprofit, and business sectors gathered on to the Main Campus of Community College of Philadelphia to welcome Single Stop USA, a program proven to improve the lives of financially struggling community college students. The event drew some of the city’s most influential figures, including Mayor Nutter, the President and Vice Presidents of the College, and leaders from the venture capital, entrepreneurial, and foundation communities. But the most important person in the room that night was not a business owner, policy maker or funder. It was a recent community college graduate who was once forced to choose between breakfast and books; between her nursing equipment and a bus pass. Taylor McMahon, who was on the brink of dropping out school before she stepped into her local Single Stop office, was in attendance to remind the audience of an unfortunate and unsettling reality: “My story is not unique.”
Nation wide, less than half of all community college students earn their degrees within six years,  and the simple truth is that many of those who drop out lack the resources to stay in school. The statistics are especially disconcerting for Philadelphia, considering community colleges account for over one-third of initial enrollments for all high school graduates. Philadelphia is in danger of facing a glut of young people without post-secondary degrees unless it can find creative ways to knock down the barriers preventing low-income and first-generation students from completing school. Community College of Philadelphia has demonstrated its commitment to tackling the issue and is leading the charge through its innovative partnership with Single Stop.
Every year, millions of young people find themselves forced to make the painful decision between paying their tuition bills and paying to keep their lights on at home. Meanwhile, every year, millions of dollars in public benefits and education tax credits are left on the table – unused. Single Stop works with community colleges to connect students to untapped benefits and services, effectively converting existing resources into financial aid for young people struggling to make ends meet. “We are turning the safety net into a springboard – a springboard to opportunity, stability and the promise of a revitalized middle class,” explained Elisabeth Mason, CEO and Co-Founder of Single Stop, at Philadelphia’s October event, to a packed room adorned in Single Stop’s signature green.
Benefits screening, however, is far from the only tool Single Stop employs to change the trajectory of its students. The Single Stop model provides other critical services proven to have an impact on a learner’s life, including financial coaching, tax preparation, and legal counseling – all at no cost to the student. “At Single Stop,” Mason continued, “we have a really simple, but revolutionary plan.”
Community College of Philadelphia, Single Stop’s 16th community college partner, opened the doors to its on-site office this fall and since its launch, staff has seen the number of walk-ins and appointments-made increasing steadily. “Since day one, our main priority has been outreach,” said Chantal Whitehead, Assistant Project Director and Financial Education Coordinator for Single Stop at the College, “because students need to know that we’re here – and that if they need it – we can start helping today.” Whitehead expressed her pleasure with already having office “regulars” and she is confident that, as word spreads, the number of students who come in to inquire about benefits will increase. Single stop anticipates serving over 1,000 students in its first year with the objective of steadily growing annually to serve a substantial portion of the entire Community College of Philadelphia student population.
Research shows that students with healthy home environments and stable finances are more likely to stay in school. Single Stop’s presence on campus expands the scope of services that the College offers and empowers students to earn their degrees by widening the safety net for those who need it most. “This model is a catalytic force for building economic security among students,” said Paula Umaña, Director of the Single Stop site at the College. The office has supported its students using the Benefits Enrollment Network (BEN), a software program that outlines a person’s eligibility for benefits, with a trained staff-person on hand to walk a student through the details.
Additionally, the office makes referrals to existing student support services within the College network and beyond. “There are so many great services that exist on this campus,” said Umaña, ”and we’ve connected our students to a number of them – from housing to employment. It’s been a tremendous help having them on our side.“ Single Stop plans to provide access to free tax preparation services, as well as financial and legal counseling, in the coming months.
Taylor McMahon’s story is not unique. Every morning, someone wakes up and faces the demanding task of getting through another day of classes on an empty stomach. Every semester, someone is forced to make the decision between eviction and dropping out. Every year, someone avoids the doctor’s office because they fear they cannot afford to be sick. These stories are as numerous as they are heart breaking, but the overall narrative is not entirely bleak, with the plot line brightening as Single Stop sites continue sprouting across our nation’s college campuses. “For the first time, I felt like I had an option,” concluded McMahon in front of a captivated audience at the College, “because of Single Stop, I didn’t have to go out and take the first full-time job I found. I could stay in school and focus on my future.”