debtWFSN leaders Achieving the Dream and MDC, Inc. together support a network of community colleges engaged in providing training, income supports and financial services for low-income students, working towards the end goals of retention and completion. Some community colleges call these Financial Opportunity Centers.

Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs) provide employment and career counseling, one-on-one financial coaching and education and low-cost financial products that help build credit, savings and assets. They are career and personal finance service centers that help low- to moderate-income people build smart money habits and focus on the financial bottom line. FOCs also connect clients with income supports such as food stamps, utilities assistance and affordable health insurance.

Based on the Center for Working Families model developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, core services are offered by FOCs in an integrated fashion called “bundling” in order to reinforce one another and to provide a multi-faceted approach to income and wealth building. The coaching approach used by all FOCs is client-driven, distinct from traditional counseling or case management and designed to help clients articulate and achieve their goals and vision for their financial future.

With the support of the WFSN’s Leadership Group, community colleges in the network receive a variety of services and opportunities aimed at increasing their programs’ effectiveness, including technical assistance about how to implement the ISD approach and how to expand specialized services. Member colleges participate in an active learning network of institutions that visit fellow colleges, gather at learning events, and exchange information through regular discussion groups and webinars.

The two case studies below provide a closer look at the range of ISD services delivered in a community-college setting. The first explores service delivery provided by on-campus FOCs supported by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). The second looks at MDC-supported North Arkansas Community College’s approach.

Case Study #1

Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs) provide employment and career counseling, one-on-one financial coaching and education and low-cost financial products that help build credit, savings and assets. They also connect clients with income supports such as food stamps, utilities assistance and affordable health insurance.

G.T.’s Pathway to Success

Month 1:

  • Met with Employment Coach; found job with campus textbook vendor
  • Met with Financial Coach; discussed car-buying goal and pros/cons of cash purchase vs. financing

Month 2:

  • Laid off from original job, found new job but with irregular and insufficient hours. Continued working with Employment Coach to search for new or additional job to bring in more income.

Month 4:

  • Screened for eligibility for SNAP (food stamps) and subsidized health insurance

Months 7-12

  • Monthly net income dipped from $426 to $167 for several months (irregular job hours)
  • Approved for food stamps & medical benefits
  • Secured job at local drugstore chain; net income rose from $167 to $765
  • Continued to meet regularly with Financial Coach on car-buying goal; coach emphasized importance of building credit to quality for better financing terms
  • Worked with Financial Coach to apply for Twin Account credit-builder loan
  • Net worth declined (tuition & student loans)

Year 2

  • Approved for Twin Account & made consistent, on-time payments, earning savings match.
  • Improved credit score to 630 in less than 6 months
  • Opened credit card account from mainstream bank
  • Secured car loan for purchase of car
  • Worked with Employment Coach to obtain 2nd job at a security firm; monthly net income rose to $1,741 for three months, then down to net income of $146
  • Stayed enrolled in college classes

Case Study: G.T.

“G.T.” began working with an on-campus Financial Opportunity Center while taking classes at her local community college. G.T. needed to find a new job after being laid off from a job at a bookstore, and also needed help becoming financially stable. Her short-term goal was to find a new job; her medium-to-long term goals included buying a car and finishing college.

Skills, Financial, Employment Coaching

At the FOC, G.T. received coaching on résumé -writing, interviewing, and identifying job leads from an FOC Employment Coach. She also used the FOC’s resource room, with computers, job search reference materials, and a coordinator on hand to troubleshoot digital questions.

G.T.’s Financial Coach provided G.T. with some budgeting tools, and emphasized the importance of establishing active lines of credit, and explained that by making on-time payments, G.T. could improve her credit score. The FC also recommended G.T. as a candidate for a Twin Account.

Before opening the Twin Account, G.T. had 20 inquiries on her credit report, from numerous applications for cards that were declined. The financial coach explained how inquiries can negatively affect a credit score, and together they established a goal of not applying for any new/additional credit for at least a year, while she was building better credit through the Twin Account.

With support from her financial counselor, G.T. raised her credit score to 630 in less than six months, secured a credit card from a mainstream bank, and a car loan so that she could finance the purchase of a car.  With these supports, G.T. successfully stayed enrolled in college classes and was on her way to financial security.

See the sidebar to the right for a detailed timeline of G.T.’s progress. Notice that especially in the first year contact is not as frequent as in later months. G.T.’s story is presented as just one example of what ISD looks like. Each person’s path to success and intensity of services will vary according to their needs and where they are at any given time. G. T.’s story illustrates just one such pathway.

Case Study #2

Case Study: North Arkansas College

Leaders at North Arkansas College (NorthArk) knew that offering students a range of services to help them become financially stable would improve their lives and the likelihood they’d stay in college and graduate.

Jenna Bryant supports the project for MDC, and serves as NorthArk’s facilitator.

“The two thiwssn-2ngs that people in poverty don’t have is extra money for transaction costs, and extra time—because they’re already spending their time working, going to school, studying, taking care of their families, and accessing services,” Bryant says. “We’re helping the college implement a combination of academic and non-academic supports to help students persist toward degree completion. Included in this effort are intensive career and financial coaching services, and less intensive services such as access to income and work supports such as SNAP , financial aid, and, of course, the food pantry.”

At NorthArk, a school of about 1,600 students in Harrison, Arkansas, that has meant offering SNAP sign-ups on campus, adding financial and career literacy to the College Success Skills course, and bringing free tax preparation services to the campus. They are also addressing fundamental challenges for students who’ve never been exposed to the banking system —how to write a check, how to read a bank statement, how to balance their accounts.

One student, who went through the FDIC Money Smart curriculum as part of the Success Skills course, realized her family business was using the wrong tax forms. As a result, “she got back $3,000 by going through the financial literacy pieces,” Sarah Bing, Student Activities and Organization Coordinator, says. “She was ecstatic, the teacher was ecstatic, and we were jealous.”