Leaders Driving Change: Chad Thompson

SparkPoint at Skyline College Supports Students to Achieve Their Financial Goals

Watch the video and keep reading below to learn more about Chad Thompson and SparkPoint at Skyline College.

For many students, attending community college is a practical financial decision: The low tuition appears to offer an affordable way to earn a college degree. But most students are confronted with the high costs of survival (housing, food, and transportation), and those financial challenges often delay or deter them on their journey to a degree.

At Skyline College, students have been able to turn to the SparkPoint Center. SparkPoint, an initiative of the United Way Bay Area, is a hub for financial resources and support. Established in 2010, the SparkPoint Center at Skyline College was one of the first SparkPoint centers in the Bay Area and the first at a community college. Chad Thompson, M.B.A., has served as the center’s director for the past six years. He says he is deeply committed to working at community colleges because of their power to dramatically transform lives and create social mobility.

But financial challenges, not academic ones, are the biggest barriers to that transformation, Thompson says, so holistic student support is crucial to ensure that students stay on track to earn a degree that can change their future. About a third of California college students struggle with food and housing insecurity, according to the 2019 Student Expenses and Resources Survey, conducted by the California Student Aid Commission.

“An institution of higher education is not just about tutoring, academic counseling, and the faculty, all of which are important. It’s about things happening outside of the classroom.” Thompson says, “To really have those big, big impacts, and address those equity gaps that we’re seeing, we really need to address those things outside of the classroom, because that’s what is affecting our community college students, especially, the most.”

SparkPoint offers a food pantry, grants for groceries, and helps students apply for CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program. SparkPoint counselors also connect students with community programs for hotel vouchers and rental assistance. Additionally, The SparkPoint Center offers career counseling and financial coaching to help set students up for longer-term financial stability.

Students getting carrots at SparkPoint food pantry.

Justin Gayle, a former Skyline College student and SparkPoint client, proudly says that the support helped him move his credit score from the red zone to the green zone. The counselor taught him about debt, helped him find a credit card that better met his needs, and guided him to use it to improve his credit score, which ultimately will make it easier for him to rent a home and apply for loans. At SparkPoint, Gayle says, “They’re really trying to uplift and empower people within their own lives to do the best they can to thrive, not just survive.”

Skyline SparkPoint’s food pantry had been serving a few hundred students a month, but Thompson wanted to expand the scope of those served as well as reduce the stigma that some students might feel from visiting a food pantry. His solution was to create a community market where students could come to browse and get food, similar to a farmers’ market, without having to make an appointment. In response to COVID-19, the market has transitioned to a drive-thru model and now serves more than 900 families weekly. Thompson also pushed for a DREAM Center to be included at the SparkPoint Center, to encourage undocumented students to use SparkPoint’s financial resources and support services.

Data shows SparkPoint is helping students stay in school and move forward in their education. About 83% of students who were SparkPoint clients at Skyline College persisted from fall 2014 to spring 2015, compared to 64% of students college-wide, according to Ena Yasuhara Li, vice president of Community Impact at United Way Bay Area, which created and coordinates the SparkPoint initiative. Li hopes that SparkPoint can expand further to other postsecondary institutions, including CSUs.

“The more students you have who can finish school and get their degrees, and the more education that you have in the community, then (the more) you have people who can have living-wage jobs,” Li says. “They’ll stay in the Bay Area, and it’ll really impact the community at-large and help it become a more thriving community. “

Thompson’s leadership and Skyline’s success have ignited interest in SparkPoint from other schools. Thinking beyond Skyline, Thompson has helped create a SparkPoint toolkit for postsecondary institutions and hosted tours and events so that more people can learn about the power of SparkPoint and bring it to their campus. As of January 2022, nine of the 23 community colleges in the Bay Area now have SparkPoint Centers.

As a leader, Thompson is motivated by the opportunity to support individual students in transforming their lives, as well as to contribute to greater community wellbeing. “My colleagues and my team, we try to have a balance between hands-on experiences of success and joy for our students who are achieving their goals, really trying to highlight them individually, and then balance that with the greater impact overall that we’re having,” said Thompson. “The mix of those two things really helps us stay focused and understand why we’re here.”

Watch our conversation with Chad Thompson about SparkPoint at Skyline College here.


This feature is part of the College Futures Foundation’s Leaders Driving Change recognition series. Through this series, we are lifting up leaders, institutions, and organizations committed to equitable, student-centered support and a culture of continuous improvement. We are showcasing leaders and teams who are easing student transitions, providing holistic student supports, and prioritizing equity and inclusivity. Learn more.

Topics: Leadership