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Sep 16, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Using Student Workers to Provide Comprehensive Financial Supports to Increase College Completion

By Katherine Saunders

For low-income community college students managing multiple responsibilities such as family, work, and school, financial aid and access to public benefits (such as SNAP, health insurance, or child care assistance) are critical to economic stability and college completion. In an effort to integrate access to state and federal supports and other existing public resources into college operations, seven community colleges participated in a three-year initiative called Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) to develop and implement strategies and practices to increase the number of students earning postsecondary credentials.

Three of the colleges—Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC), and Skyline College—used innovative and successful strategies to implement their benefits access work through the use of student workers. Student workers have proven very effective, carrying out a number of key functions, including:

  • Clerical work: data entry, scheduling appointments, and answering phones.
  • Outreach: classroom presentations, setting up tables in well-trafficked areas of the campus to inform students about the programs, and designing and distributing promotional materials.
  • Screening: using online or software-based screening tools to determine likely eligibility for public benefits.
  • Application assistance and follow-up: helping students apply for benefits using online tools or hard copy applications; helping them gather documents needed to verify information on the applications; and following up to address any roadblocks and ensure they receive the benefits for which they are eligible.
  • Referrals to other services and experts: connecting students with additional resources ranging from financial aid to legal services to emergency needs like food and shelter. 

Buy-in from institutional decision makers is critical to the success of programs that use student workers to provide access to public benefits. Having influential decision makers (such as the college president) on board can make a tremendous difference in the amount of resources available and supports provided. Additionally, by building partnerships throughout the college, in particular with the Financial Aid and Student Services Offices, a program can secure both student workers and referrals of students who are likely eligible to receive services based on their financial aid data.

Project managers and program coordinators should strike a balance that gives new student workers an introduction to benefits without an overwhelming amount of detail.  Additionally, using online pre-screening and screening tools that simplify the process of determining likely eligibility for benefits prevents student workers from having to become eligibility experts; they need only know the basics and understand how to effectively use the screening tools and assist with applications.

Colleges that have relied on student worker assistance recommend that others do so as well. To learn more, read CLASP’s brief detailing specific strategies other colleges and universities can use to implement student workers connect more low-income students to comprehensive financial supports.

Sep 16, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Student Voices: Federal Work-Study Provides Greater Support toward College Persistence and Career Entry

By Katherine Saunders

This is the second installment of our Student Voices series, which features a new student story every week in September. These powerful testimonials from actual students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

Low-income students confront numerous barriers to college completion, the foremost of which is their ability to pay for the ever-increasing cost of college. Even after grant aid, the lowest-income community college students can have unmet financial need (the balance remaining after the student’s contribution and grant aid) as high as $10,000 annually. This unmet need can drive students—a growing proportion of whom are financially independent and may have families of their own—to take on more work hours while in school. And while working part-time on-campus is associated with positive outcomes such as increased student engagement on campus and higher persistence rates, working more than 20 hours a week—which more than forty percent of students do—can threaten academic success and completion.

One form of federal aid that can provide low-income students with financial assistance, while enabling them to form connections to the labor market, is the federal work-study program (FWS). Nearly $1 billion in FWS funds are provided for on- or off-campus employment to students with financial need. Although the FWS program accounts for a small portion of federal financial aid, the impact of the aid can be magnified by institutional and employer contributions, which are required for many student placements. Furthermore, new research shows that receiving FWS funds can actually reduce hours worked and improve academic outcomes for students who would have had to work even without an FWS job.

In addition to providing additional financial aid for students, work-study jobs provide benefits that regular jobs can’t offer, such as schedule flexibility. Many students balance school, work, and family responsibilities and benefit from the flexible work-schedules offered through FWS that allow them to schedule shifts around their classes and other external obligations.

Moreover, FWS can be a valuable way for students to gain work experience that will launch them into their new careers once they graduate. While it’s common for higher-income students to gain work experience through unpaid internships, low-income students are seldom able to take these unpaid jobs because of financial responsibilities. Statutory requirements of the FWS program encourage career-related placements.  Unfortunately, in practice, these placements rarely occur.

After 30 years in the same company, Erika[1] was forced to resign from her position due to a lack of academic credentials.  Even though she had the work experience, she returned to college to obtain a degree in accounting. In addition to the Pell grant, Erika received FWS and worked 20 hours a week in food services and bookkeeping. While this work-study position provided her necessary income for educational expenses, it lacked a meaningful connection to her field of study.

For too many low-income community college students like Erika, their part-time jobs, whether FWS or off-campus, are not related to their career aspirations. The most recent National Study of the Operation of The Federal Work-Study Program found that “although federal regulations encourage institutions to provide an FWS student with a job that will complement his or her academic program or career interests, less than 40 percent of FWS students overall indicated that they worked in such jobs.”  According to the same survey, 42 percent of FWS students said they wanted more jobs related to their academic program or desired careers.

The current FWS program can benefit from reforms that better aligned job placement opportunities with a student’s career interests. If FWS placements were aligned to participants’ career interests, students like Erika could earn valuable income while also supporting their longer-term career goal. Ensuring low-income, working students are provided both financial aid and valuable work experience will be critical to future college completion and economic mobility. In the coming weeks, CLASP will be releasing a paper that further details proposed policy recommendations to improve career-related placements and maximize the use of FWS by low-income students.


[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Sep 8, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Student Voices: Financial Supports Key to College Persistence, Completion

By Katherine Saunders

This is the first installment of our Student Voices series, which will feature a new student story every week in September. These powerful testimonials from actual students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

Now more than ever, some form of postsecondary education is key to economic mobility and the gateway to the middle class. But despite the increasing demand for postsecondary credentials, the rising cost of college is putting it further out of reach for many low-income students.  

The price tag on a college education has risen dramatically over the last three decades, increasing nearly four times faster than median family income and two-and-a-half times faster than Pell grants. Today, unmet need—the share of college costs not covered by financial aid or what a family is expected to contribute—averages $6,000 and can be as high as $10,000 for the lowest-income community college students.  

At the same time, the face of higher education is changing. The “traditional” full-time student entering a four-year college or university right out of high school is no longer the norm. Fifty-one percent of undergraduate students are independent, 41 percent work more than 20 hours per week, and 26 percent are parents.

Jennifer[1]- a first-generation, full-time, student-parent at a community and technical college in southern Minnesota is a prime example of the challenges that today’s students face. Her education was paid for with a combination of federal, state, and private sources; these included a Pell Grant, scholarships, a state grant for low- and moderate-income students, work-study, and loans. She also qualified for and received public benefits, such as housing assistance, medical assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and child care assistance for her two children. In addition to these financial supports, Jennifer also worked at an assisted living facility for 16 hours every two weeks. Although she budgeted her money carefully, she still could not make ends meet, sometimes not even having enough money for gas or laundry. “Even though I do get [financial help],” she explained, “I still struggle”.

Like Jennifer, a significant number of today’s students—particularly those at community colleges-are working while attending school. Two-thirds of young community college students work more than 20 hours per week to cover college and family costs and 58 percent attend college part-time to accommodate work. While a moderate amount of work can improve a student’s likelihood of completion, too much work can lower completion rates and threaten chances of ever getting a degree. Because Jennifer qualifies for a variety of financial supports, she has been able to avoid working excessive hours—and still reports being unable to pay all of her basic living expenses.

But many students don’t receive these supportive services, and working full- or part-time to make ends meet may derail their academic progress. A 2009 survey of young adults who left their postsecondary education program found that 71 percent did so to “go to work and make money,” with over half (54 percent) of respondents listing these financial pressures as a “major reason.” Jennifer even considered dropping out of school to find full-time employment to increase her income and become more financially stable. Even when they have every intention to return, students who take breaks during their postsecondary education are less likely to complete a degree. Research shows that continuous enrollment is the number one predictor of college completion, increasing the probability of degree completion by 43 percent.

Instead of taking a break from school, what if Jennifer (and students like her) had the opportunity to continue their studies into the summer, without interruption, and were provided the financial means to do so? Reforms to the Higher Education Act -- such as providing Pell grants flexibly throughout the year, reducing the “work penalty” (letting low-income working students keep more of their income for living expenses), and improving access to comprehensive financial supports -- would help students like Jennifer complete college more quickly and enter, or advance, in the labor market. Moreover, such reforms would keep them enrolled in college continuously, improving their chances of reaching a degree.

As Congress considers reforms to the Higher Education Act, students like Jennifer—working, low-income, adult students—should be at the forefront of the conversation. These students are the new face of higher education and our federal student aid system should be designed to better meet their needs.


[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.

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