Each year, the days leading up to April 15 are a whirl of intense activity for BMCC’s Single Stop program. As the tax filing deadline draws near, the number of students stopping by the program’s office (199 Chambers Street, S235) to have their tax returns prepared swells dramatically.
Tax preparation is part of a varied suite of services available free of charge to students through Single Stop, according to Deborah Harte, student life manager for the program at BMCC. Operating at all six CUNY community colleges, and working with both external and internal partners, Single Stop also provides financial and legal counseling as well as assistance in applying for government-sponsored nutritional, healthcare and childcare programs.
“Students come to us typically because they’re experiencing financial difficulties that get in the way of their studies and may even keep them from getting to school,” says Harte. “We can often help them take advantage of options they otherwise wouldn’t know about.”
As a first step, Harte’s staff will assess the specific types of counseling or government services for which the student may eligible. “To do that, we first need to find out what’s really going on with the student,” she says. “The student may say, ‘I can’t get to my classes because I don’t have a Metrocard,’ but in talking to her, we’re likely to learn that the problem goes deeper—perhaps that the student is jobless or even homeless.”
The goal, she says, is to help students stabilize their lives to they can stay in school and attend to their studies.
Easing the burden
Liberal Arts major Jacob Tidwell learned about Single Stop from a lobby sign about tax preparation services. “I met with a counselor who told me what documents to bring, and got my taxes done the next day,” he says. “It was a lot easier than trying to do it myself online.”
But other anxieties also weighed heavily on Tidwell. Because money was tight, he needed to work full time and even then had difficulty making ends meet. “Through Single Stop, I learned that I was eligible to receive food stamps through SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” he says. “It’s been a huge help. Now I can focus on academics and not lie awake at night worrying about money and work.”
Since its inception at BMCC in 2010, Single Stop has assisted some 10,500 students, providing them with some $23 million in services. The average refund received by students using the program’s tax preparation service is $1,400. “That’s a sizable amount of money that can be put toward relieving their financial pressures,” Harte says.
Serving a special population
To be sure, not all students qualify for SNAP or other government subsidies. In the early days of BMCC’s Single Stop program, Harte recalls, “It became evident to us that we needed to find a way to help our undocumented population. So we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in developing programs they can take advantage of, such as community-based healthcare with sliding-scale fees, and immigration seminars where they can learn about the steps to becoming documented.”
At a legal clinic held each semester, immigration attorneys help students begin the process of applying for US citizenship, or sponsoring relatives. The clinic, like all Single Stop services, is provided free of charge.
If Single Stop’s objective were boiled down to its essence, it would be “retention and graduation.”
Once students are on track to get the help they need, “we follow them and make sure that they’re able to continue with their studies and achieve success,” Harte says. “And when we get to graduation day, we get to celebrate with them.”