Cuyahoga Community College Helps Low-Income Students Find Benefits

September 11, 2012 | The Plain Dealer |  Link to article

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Cuyahoga Community College has branched into a new field - benefits coaching - to link low-income students to aid that can help them succeed at school.

Many such students drop out or are only able to attend part-time because of families, jobs and other commitments. But they may be unaware they could qualify for local, state and federal benefits -- including child care subsidies and food stamps -- that might make it easier to stay in college, said Sandy Robinson, vice president of academic affairs.

"If students can focus more on their education ,they can reach their goal of completing a certificate or degree," she said.

Tri-C received a $450,000 grant from several major foundations to create Project Go! The college is working with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the Ohio Benefit Bank and the Cleveland Foodbank.

Staff and interns on all four of Tri-C's campuses have been trained as benefit coaches.

"The goal is to help students first determine if they are eligible for benefits and from there we will help them with the application process," Robinson said. "We want students to think of this as a temporary situation and once they get a degree they can become self-supporting."

Each month, campuses will host staff from public benefit agencies who will provide students with information, such as eligibility requirements, and help with applications.

Robinson said several students have sought help since the college began the program this fall. Tri-C has contacted about 800 incoming students whose federal student financial aid forms indicated their estimated financial contribution was zero. It will track those students to see how they progress through school. The college also is promoting the program on campuses and asking faculty to identify any student who might qualify.

Tri-C is one of seven community colleges across the country trying to connect low-income students with benefits through a new program..

Benefits Access for College Completion is a two-year pilot program with $4.84 million from the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. It is managed by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the American Association of Community Colleges.

According to the College Board, the average full-time community college student had more than $6,000 in unmet need in 2011-2012. About 66 percent of young community college students work more than 20 hours per week to help pay for school and family obligations and 58 percent attend college part-time to accommodate work, the foundations said.

The foundations said that if low-income students, who represent about 40 percent of the community college student population, could gain a certificate or degree they would less likely need support in the future.

Community college officials in the project have said their mission must extend beyond the academic needs of the student because so many other factors stand in the way of success, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, project director from the Center for Law and Social Policy.

"They have decided to take on this set of activities and building it into advising and financial aid," she said. "It can increase financial stability and the likelihood of completing. Very few colleges cross country are pursuing this kind of work. Tri-C is definitely a trailblazer in that way."

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