3 Challenges in Creating a Public-Benefits-Access Program—and How to Overcome Them

By Kelly Field

From 2012 to 2014, seven community colleges participated in a pilot project that sought to determine how to best build — and sustain — public-benefits-access programs on campus. Along the way, the colleges encountered several challenges and came up with some creative ways to address them. Here are a few.

Challenge No. 1: Faculty resistance

While some faculty members were enthusiastic about the effort, others saw providing access to benefits as the government’s responsibility. Some professors were uncomfortable talking with their students about their finances, or didn’t want to take on additional advisory or screening duties.

The solution: At Gateway Community and Technical College, in Florence, Ky., the president dedicated a day of professional development to the college’s efforts. The college also held a "poverty simulation," in which faculty and staff members and administrators role-played as low-income students (including homeless students and single parents) to gain a better understanding of the trade-offs they make and the challenges they face in navigating government services.

Challenge No. 2: Poor student takeup or follow-through

At first, some of the colleges found that students weren’t responding to their marketing and outreach. Or students would show up for the first appointment but not complete the application process.

The solution: An opt-out model. At LaGuardia Community College, in New York, and Cuyahoga Community College, in Cleveland, administrators started flagging the records of students likely to qualify for public benefits, alerting them, as well as staff members, and directing them to application support. At Cuyahoga, students were required to complete an eligibility screening to get the flag cleared from their record. LaGuardia gave students personalized appointment cards and offered subway fare cards as an incentive for confirming that they had received benefits.

Challenge No. 3: The stigma of seeking help

Students either didn’t believe they were "poor enough" or didn’t want to depend on government aid. This was particularly true among laid-off workers, who were accustomed to supporting themselves.

Solution No. 1: Framing public benefits as temporary assistance that can lead to permanent self-sufficiency. Gateway coined two phrases: "There’s a time to give and a time to receive. Now is the time to receive" and "short-term assistance, for a long-term success." At Northampton Community College, in Bethlehem, Pa., the director of welfare services reminded students who had worked and paid taxes: "You contributed. Now it is your time to receive until you can get on your feet."

Solution No. 2: Enlisting students. LaGuardia worked with a marketing class to craft messages that would resonate with students. Skyline College, in San Bruno, Calif., has students who receive public benefits conduct eligibility screenings and assist with applications.

Source: Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, "Benefits Access for College Completion: Lessons Learned From a Community College Initiative to Help Low-Income Students"