U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Tacoma Community College Pilot Program Helps Homeless Students Succeed

Organizations in Tacoma, Washington have a history of partnering around common goals. This strong sense of collaboration made it easy for Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra to approach Tacoma Community College (TCC) then-President Pamela Transue when he noticed that several community college students were requesting housing services. To assess the situation, TCC designed a survey through which it found that over 100 students were facing housing instability, many of whom were living out of their cars or with family and friends for short periods of time.

Homeless youth face the typical barriers to academic success that many other students do; on top of those challenges, homeless students must also overcome hunger, lack of healthcare, and often unsafe or overcrowded living conditions. To give these students a greater chance at academic and life success, TCC launched a three-year pilot program that leverages public housing dollars while providing educational support to alleviate some of the barriers to success that are unique to homeless and housing-insecure college students, making the first program applications available in 2013.

The TCC Housing Assistance Program provides rental assistance and student support services to TCC students and their dependents who face housing insecurity. To participate in the program, students must enroll full time, maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, make adequate progress to a degree, and attend financial literacy workshops. TCC teaches students about the program during registration at the start of the semester. Responsibilities are shared among students, the institution, and the Tacoma Housing Authority. Students must apply to the program to be considered. The college is responsible for screening participants, providing completion and mental health coaches who identify barriers and determine appropriate resources, assigning career counselors, and tracking academic progress. The housing authority is responsible for performing background checks, providing housing choice vouchers, and assisting with security deposit payments often needed to lease an apartment. Given the limited number of vouchers, only 25 TCC students are eligible at any one time. The vouchers are valid for three years or until the student graduates, whichever occurs first.

An assessment of first-year outcomes reveals positive results to date: participating students are three times more likely than unassisted homeless TCC students to re-enroll the following academic year.

Below are three factors that emerged in a conversation with TCC and Tacoma Housing Authority leaders about practices that have been critical to the housing assistance program’s success.

Success Factor 1: Building from Available Resources

Other than the 25 vouchers sponsored by the Tacoma Housing Authority, the housing assistance program has no separate funding stream. Thus, any costs incurred need to be kept to a minimum. To provide adequate support services to these students, TCC staff assessed the resources available at the community college through already established programs and noticed that students in the workforce development program were doing well in school. (Notably, the workforce development program was the only program that provided a case manager to students.) To leverage the case manager as a resource, the housing assistance program partnered with the workforce development program by targeting its students during recruitment. Although students from other academic departments could apply for the housing assistance program, students in the workforce development program would receive priority. The college added a part-time completion coach who could help analyze program outcomes while providing additional support to students.

Success Factor 2: Identifying and Addressing New Challenges as They Arise

At one point, the housing authority noticed that some vouchers were not being used and found that students were not taking advantage of the housing assistance even though they had been accepted to the program. Program administrators later discovered that these students could not afford the security deposit required by many apartment complexes. Now that the housing authority understands the challenge, it has set aside additional funds to help students in need pay the requested amount.

Over the last three years, modifications have been made to the selection process to create a fairer system. Originally, the selection process would rank students based on certain priorities such as family size and veteran status. However, given the limited number of housing vouchers, staff realized that this ranking barred students who were single and had never served in the military. Thus, in the most recent application cycle, the selection process used a lottery system. Participants who are already homeless still have priority over those at risk of being homeless.

Although TCC did not have a prototype housing assistance program to follow, the college has been successful at alleviating housing insecurity for several students. TCC attributes part of its achievement to their ability to problem-solve and to leverage challenges as opportunities for growth. Given the continued need of TCC students, the Tacoma Housing Authority foresees providing housing support to additional cohorts in the coming years. In order to best serve their students, programs of this nature must remain flexible and adaptable to students’ life circumstances and available resources.

Success Factor 3: Providing Wraparound Services 

While it is labor intensive to provide wraparound services – social, emotional, and financial support for students outside of the classroom – staff at the housing assistance program believe that doing so is critical to success.

Compared to traditionally underserved students, individuals who face housing insecurity experience additional barriers such as limited access to health care and to nutritious food. TCC’s completion coaches and mental health counselors check in monthly with program participants to ensure that students’ academic progress is encumbered as little as possible by challenges beyond their control. For institutions that do not have the resources to provide these support services, TCC suggests establishing partnerships with community-based organizations that may already be working in this space.

The Tacoma Community College Housing Assistance Program is an innovative pilot initiative designed with student success, academic persistence, and college completion in mind. Disadvantaged students who are fortunate to be selected to participate in the program appear to stand a three-times greater chance at staying in college. Other community colleges can similarly make the most of available resources to give their students the best-possible chances of success.

For more information, visit the TCC Housing Assistance Program website, which includes an application and details on the program:

A version of this piece first appeared in the 2016 ACCT report “The Progress of Latinos in Higher Education: Strategies to Create Student Success Programs at Community Colleges.”

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