Building a New Partnership for Community Colleges: The Desire to Partner with Head Start Programs

August 31, 2023

Students enrolled at community colleges come from a variety of backgrounds and each institution is consistently looking to provide the wrap-around support needed to ensure that students are successful. When individuals hear the word student, they may instinctively think of someone in K12 education or the 18–24-year-old that higher education considers a traditional student. However, about 20% of undergraduate students are student parents. For these student parents, they are juggling their courses, a job, being a parent, and a variety of other responsibilities. Student parents with children that are not old enough for kindergarten are continuously searching for affordable early learning experiences. Many individuals live in child care deserts or the child care that is available is cost prohibitive or does not accommodate their schedule or needs. 

In March 2023, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) announced the beginning of the Kids on Campus Initiative. Through this project, ACCT and NHSA plan to recruit interested Head Starts and community colleges to explore on-campus partnerships with the goal of launching 75 co-location partnerships. Over the past six months, ACCT and NHSA have co-developed processes for identifying, vetting, and matching interested participants from their memberships. In addition, the two organizations curated materials to simplify partnership exploration and the contract process between community colleges and Head Start providers. ACCT and NHSA facilitated six focus groups with various stakeholders and members to directly inform the development of these materials. The direct quotes included throughout this blog are all from these focus groups.

The launch of the Kids on Campus Initiative in March has sparked interest across the nation with many institutions and Head Start programs eager to learn how to establish these partnerships. We heard through our focus groups that “partnerships between community colleges and Head Start programs just makes sense” and “the benefits are obvious.” Individuals from community colleges attending our focus groups stated that student parents would have the opportunity to further their education without having to worry about child care. The benefits of these partnerships to community colleges in service of their students extend beyond the current student parents attending community colleges. They also include:

  • New enrolled students who are Head Start participant parents; 
  • New enrolled students who are Head Start staff, using Head Start professional development funds; 
  • Partnership with the Early Childhood Education program that provides opportunities for classroom observation and practicums; 
  • Opportunity for medical assistant, nursing, dental and other students to work with Head Start families, providing needed services and training to students; and 
  • Use of Head Start as a basis for a child care center that incorporates braided funding with classrooms supported by other sources such as Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grants or direct pay, which would allow faculty and staff to on site child care as well.

Investigating Partnership: Practical Benefits of Head Start to Community Colleges

Community colleges understand that students overall have various needs to be able to come to campus ready to learn. Child care is a well-known barrier to these student parents continuing their education and potentially considering stopping out. Institutions are exploring ways to meet the needs of both potential and current student parents.

When asked why a partnership between community colleges and Head Start programs was not started before, some community colleges stated that they did not know that it was an option. One focus group participant noticed a trend that some presidents are “looking for additional ways to address the needs of the non-traditional student.” Having leadership on campus that understands “the importance of providing child care to students and the importance of early learning opportunities for children” which can support the establishment of a partnership with Head Start. Throughout the focus groups, a theme of needing leadership buy-in was discussed at several locations, both from those already operating successful partnerships and those whose work to establish a partnership was roadblocked.

Once leadership sets the goal for child care on campus, they have multiple options to make that a reality. One is for the college to open and manage its own child care center. While there are benefits to this, having a center that is only private pay likely puts the price out of range for most students and requires the campus to have an expert on site who knows all of the rules and regulations for early learning locations. Another option is CCAMPIS, mentioned above. This Department of Education managed grant program can be used to support on-campus child care centers or to provide grants to students to pay for qualifying child care. It serves campuses well, particularly in areas that have ample third-party qualifying child care, but given the size of the grants and the restrictions on use for construction funding, many campuses look for additional child care options to pair with CCAMPIS funding.

The benefits of Head Start to community colleges as institutions, beyond what private pay or CCAMPIS can provide, are many. First, by using a relocation or expansion model, the community college is in partnership with a non-profit that already knows all of the early learning requirements and Head Start regulations. Further, Head Starts have the ability to apply for federal funding to support retrofitting of buildings to meet the requirements of early learning education spaces. This barrier is mentioned repeatedly as colleges examine how they use classroom space on campus. Finally, Head Start is free for qualifying students, which means it is affordable and targeted to the students most in need.

Barriers to Partnership

During our focus groups, community colleges did outline some potential barriers that could be anticipated in partnering with Head Start. Due to the standards and requirements of Head Start, the facilities on a campus of a community college potentially would need to be remodeled prior to a Head Start program relocating to be on campus. As a result, a timeline and overall costs for the partnership should be taken into consideration through the initial conversations. However, as mentioned above, Head Start has access to funding for this construction, but the timeline to approval and complete construction means partnerships should be realistic about the launch date of these services.

Additionally, community colleges identified other anticipated barriers to partnership to include liability, logistics, student eligibility, and understanding of Head Start requirements and guidelines. Yet, community colleges that are considering establishing a partnership with a Head Start program noted that “none of the barriers make me want to stop the process of learning how wonderful it could be for all of the stakeholders involved.”

While there is vested interest in having on-campus child care at community colleges, each institution is in a different position to make this possible. Some institutions have leadership in place that are eager to make on-campus child care possible. At other institutions, the administration has been hesitant to move forward with establishing a child care center on campus if it were to be managed by the institution. Questions related to overall bandwidth and capacity of a community college in terms of staffing, compliance, and oversight of the Head Start program were echoed. These leaders are also cognizant of being intentional when it comes to access, wanting to ensure that students are able to access the on-campus child care to be successful in their educational endeavors.

On the Horizon

During our focus groups, we learned more about the desire to establish partnerships between community colleges and Head Start programs. Additionally, we were able to learn from current community college and Head Start partnerships, as well as roadblocked partnerships that did not come to be. From each of these discussions, we were able to create a Kids on Campus Resource Guide focused on establishing partnerships between community colleges and Head Start. The lessons learned from current partnerships and roadblocked partnerships along with questions from institutions that desire partnerships allowed us to create this resource. While we are working to finalize this guide, we are looking forward to sharing an overview of the guide in our upcoming webinar.

Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Kids on Campus Initiative to match Head Start providers with interested community colleges to explore on-campus partnerships.

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