Why Building a Drop-in Center in a Pandemic May Not Be Such a Crazy Idea

Monday, March 22, 2021
Annie Phillips

With severe enrollment declines that disproportionately affect learners of color and the threat of a “lost COVID-19 cohort,” colleges and communities are looking for innovative solutions to their enrollment woes. Most are turning inward to distinguish themselves, but rather than let competition for students drive each campus further into their siloes, why not come together to promote a clear message around college access and success? A college-agnostic drop-in center presents a compelling opportunity to do just that and work collaboratively to build new on-ramps to postsecondary education and training. 

Between September 2020 and January 2021, our team explored the feasibility of establishing a college-agnostic drop-in center—a physical location where high school youth and adult learners can receive neutral services and supports to explore, prepare for, and ultimately succeed in college—in Detroit. With generous support from the Jamie and Denise Jacob Family Foundation, ESG led the identification and synthesis of national best practices in centers all over the country, documenting typical drop-in activities, strategies to improve data collection and analysis, average budgets, staff sizes, and more. Working in partnership with stakeholders on the ground in Detroit, we assessed the need for and replicability of these practices in the Detroit region. Ultimately, we recommended, with certain parameters in place, that the city move forward with the establishment of a college access and success center. 

At this point you may be thinking, ‘Wait – seriously? Investing in a brick-and-mortar center in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis and economic shutdown? Are you crazy?’ And while many of these sites have pivoted to provide contactless services such as online college visits, webinars, and virtual advising, the proposition of investing in a physical gathering place during a global pandemic can seem (at best) overly optimistic for the future or (at worst) out of touch with reality. But hear me out.

Many of these centers play a central role in cultivating and transforming a culture of college access and success within communities. Physical centers offer a place for students to not only receive college-neutral support to explore options, complete the FAFSA, and fill out applications, but also in expanding access to public benefits such as SNAP, TANF, and housing assistance for students and prospective students. Beyond these services, they are pivotal in acting as the “storefront” for activities and programs offered through college access and success initiatives already underway; they send a strong message that college access and college success are of high priority to this community. 

While college-agnostic drop-in centers can be positioned as the central node for college access and success, our national scan showed that there are clear conditions and practices that drive success. A few key takeaways from our research are captured below. 

From infancy to maturity, prioritize partnerships and cultivate champions. Unequivocally, partnerships matter to the success of a drop-in center. In our interviews with sites, they explained that partnerships were critical because other organizations and entities are well-positioned to amplify and elevate the message, create additional bandwidth and service offerings, smooth transition points, supplement service delivery for students, and offer financial support, braided funding, and investment. Strategies for partnership often started with identifying a spokesperson or champion early in the process to elevate the message. This was beneficial not only in the promotion of efforts, but in sustaining the work. Mesa Counts on College Access Center and Cafe College both received strong support, including financial support, from their city’s mayors, but the site staff also described the importance of leveraging people on the ground that have deep knowledge of the community outside of city hall. 

Once the center is established, partners become critical to supplement service offerings. Types of partners ranged depending on clientele and mission; however, across sites nationally, some examples of partnerships that emerged as important to the execution of college access and success work included health and human services, faith-based communities, housing authorities, school districts, and postsecondary institutions. Any of these partnerships could facilitate what was often termed a “warm hand-off.” In other words, when a student is moving between services or colleges, the center can facilitate an introduction from one person with whom the student has established trust to another based on existing partnerships.

Services are best provided through a “hub and spoke” model. To thoughtfully reach students, many sites described a “hub and spoke” model. Sites using this approach established one central location or hub to deliver services with connectivity to outlying locations or services. Sites suggest this was particularly successful in locales that struggle to provide adequate access to public transportation. Through mobile units or more than one physical location, sites affirmed more students were able to access and benefit from services when they were provided in close range to or within their community. For instance, Coastal College Compass has a mobile site on wheels that conducts outreach and delivers services to rural areas outside of Corpus Christi, Texas. The mobile site serves those communities in a number of ways, but a critical service they offer is computer access in the mobile van and free WiFi. The van frequents the chamber of commerce, community centers, and Walmart parking lots after a week of advertising, and then sets up to serve students the same way they do at their main hub, a mall location. Project Grad’s GradCafé created something similar with GradCafé on the Go, which provides a mobile van cafe to promote and deliver services around literacy. Now, a subset of services is available in the community in grocery store parking lots and church events.

Case-managed advising and programming can and should be provided alongside drop-in services. While drop-in services are a key part of the activities of centers across the country, many don’t stop there. In order to provide more intensive supports to students, sites like College Depot and Mi Casa Resource Center provide both drop-in advising to explore colleges nearby, complete the FAFSA, or search for scholarships and case managed advising to support students more holistically. For instance, College Depot in Phoenix, Arizona offers a program called GRIT, which provides case-managed advising to a select set of seniors each year. These seniors receive support in setting college goals, developing postsecondary plans and follow-through on those goals. Case-managed advising can also serve to provide wrap-around services that address students’ basic needs. For example, Mi Casa Resource Center, which prepares and connects both youth and adults in the Denver region to employment opportunities, provides critical navigation advising to undergird their training and coaching services. The center addresses barriers to learning such as lack of access to housing, childcare and transportation. In addition, they provide cash stipends and gift cards to assist with small expenses such as gas or books. These services wrap around the student to first address basic needs for successful learning and then supports them in their academic pursuits. 

Recognizing the challenges presented by the pandemic, ESG will continue to partner with Detroit to develop a strategic implementation plan—one that phases in programming and the establishment of the physical center. We are energized by the innovative possibilities for expanding student support even in this challenging environment, when helping students get to and through higher education matters more than ever before.