Spotlight Exclusives

A Promising Partnership: Connecting Head Start Centers with Community Colleges

Abigail Seldin Abigail Seldin, posted on

More than one in five college students are parents—and about one in 10 are single mothers, two-thirds of whom have children under the age of six who live at or below the poverty line. Meanwhile, about 180,000 Head Start slots are going unfilled and only about 100 Head Start facilities are on community college campuses. Sound like the two sides should talk to each other? Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF), thought so. The foundation has helped bring the National Head Start Association and Association of Community College Trustees into a fledgling partnership of which the ultimate goal is to start matching community colleges with Head Start operators who might be willing to relocate, providing community college students who are parents with much-needed support. Seldin spoke to Spotlight recently about the initiative; this transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with some of the background on how this project came together?

Within the foundation, our Civic Mapping Initiative identifies “last mile” transit expansion opportunities to support workforce development and public benefits access. We’re mapping the transit proximity of essential civic resources—notably community college campuses, Head Start centers, WIC enrollment offices, and Medicare-accepting medical centers.

As a grantmaker, I have had a longstanding interest in supporting solutions for parenting students. While working on a CMI project with the National Head Start Association, I asked them, have you ever thought about broader collaborations with community colleges? Their reaction was immediate and enthusiastic, and I thought, gosh, I think we have something here.

I reached out to the Association of Community College Trustees to ask if would they be interested in a grant to start matching their members with Head Start operators willing to relocate, and their reaction mirrored NHSA’s response. This is a new relationship for both of those industry associations; I introduced them to one another in January 2023. And it is flourishing. These are two best in class industry associations that are accustomed to delivering technical assistance to their members. This is a natural strength for them both.

So, how would this work if I’m a student?

If this project is successful, we will see community college students enrolling their children in free preschool that’s co-located with their own in-person classes.

What a great thing

Right? Co-location solves a bunch of problems. Beyond the direct service benefits to current and prospective community college students, the economics of these partnerships work for both Head Start operators and for community colleges without additional appropriations.

And what’s the scale of the project at the moment?

Right now, there are approximately 3,600 unique community and technical college locations in the United States. And there’s more than 16,000 unique Head Start locations. Only about a hundred of them overlap. ACCT and NHSA have an active planning grant, and they are designing the process through which they’re going to screen, match and support their members to partner with one another. Pending fundraising, we expect implementation to start in 2024.

What sort of funding do you think this would take?

We are hoping for that partnership to secure between $5 million and $7 million for a five-year period.

And there would be no cost to students?


Describe the level of need for students in this population—there’s an unusually high percentage of parents among community college students, right?

That’s absolutely right. If this project is successful, we should see an increase in the number of parents learning and succeeding in community colleges. Today, there are community college students who are struggling with basic needs security—food, housing, transportation, childcare, healthcare. But there’s also Head Start parents who are living in poverty, raising children, and seeking economic security. And at a population level, the difference between a Head Start parent and a parenting student may just be a FAFSA.

Part of why this project makes sense strategically is that campuses have had a 10% enrollment decline since 2019. Community colleges know that in order to retain students through graduation and deliver on the promise of a post-secondary education, as well as to recruit new students, they need to put these supports in place. Ideally, that will not require replicating a social safety net on campus. Partnering with existing federally funded resources that already exist offers a sustainable path.

It seems like other programs such as WIC could be folded into this kind of partnership as well.

Exactly. My broader vision is that community college students should be able to access the full American social safety net on campus. Aligning these resources would address both the national shortage of skilled workers and enable economic mobility for struggling families.

Is there an overlap between Head Start facilities and four-year colleges as well?

There are a few Head Starts collocated with four-year colleges, but it is rare.

And presuming this becomes successful, could that be a second track?

Absolutely. Thanks to the endorsement from the Washington Post, and the other news coverage of the project, I expect to see new partnerships begin even without ACCT and NHSA support. The success of the launch and the associated media coverage have normalized these partnerships. On-campus Head Start now appears achievable, mutually beneficial, and perhaps not as difficult as previously advertised.

Clearly, for students across the board, these kinds of benefits can be daunting to reach out for, whether it’s for childcare, education, or food insecurity.

That’s exactly right. We don’t need to make this hard.

So, the primary focus right now for the grantees is fundraising?

Yes, there’s been tremendous interest in the implementation phase, which is fantastic. Right now, the grantees are also fine-tuning the process through which they will screen, match, and support their members. Focus groups are in full swing!

And if this is successful and Head Start wanted to look at making facilities closer to community colleges, is that something that would need congressional approval?

Head Start grantees are approved to operate within specific geographic areas. Operators have the freedom generally, assuming they meet all their other licensing requirements, to relocate as needed within their approved zones. We found through our Civic Mapping Initiative that the median distance between a community college campus and its nearest Head Start is 1.5 miles. Relocating onto a community college campus that is willing to offer a free facility can be tremendously advantageous for a Head Start operator: in addition to dollars saved, free rent helps Head Start operators meet their required 80-20 match of federal dollars to philanthropic contributions. We hope to see evidence that collocation eases staff recruitment and teacher training, too.

There’s a variety of ways that this project makes sense, but to me, part of the magic of it is that it makes sense just on the economics alone.


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