6 Steps to a Benefits-Access Program on Campus

By Kelly Field

As community colleges come under increasing pressure to improve their completion rates, a small but growing number of institutions are turning to public benefits to cover the cost-of-living expenses that often delay or derail students’ progress. By helping them apply for welfare, food stamps, and other government programs, these colleges have been able to increase retention among low-income students.

But creating a benefits-access program isn't easy. It requires significant planning, coordination, and faculty buy-in. Here's a six-step plan:

1. Know your students. To create effective supports for your students, you must first understand their needs. Mine the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and institutional data for information on their economic circumstances and academic outcomes. How many are economically disadvantaged? What are their levels of unmet need — the difference between their costs and resources? How many have dependents? How many receive public benefits now? Which campus services do they use? What are their rates of progression and completion?

2. Decide where to put the program. The most common location is the financial-aid office, but the program could also be added to student services or counseling, or put in a central hub offering bundled services. The key is that it not be tucked away or disconnected from other support services. The location should be familiar to faculty members and administrators, and highly visible to students.

3. Educate and engage the faculty. For a program to be successful, it has to have buy-in from the faculty and staff members. Share the data on students’ unmet needs and explain how the program fits into your college’s completion goals. Appoint "champions" to interdepartmental boards assigned to oversee the effort. Decide whether you want faculty and staff members to screen students for eligibility or simply refer them to the services. Then train those faculty and staff members to fulfill that role.

4. Go where the students are. The most effective way to reach students who might qualify for public benefits is to go where they have to go. That means finding them at orientation and in student-aid and academic-advising offices. Embedding information about public-benefits assistance into existing services, especially mandatory ones, helps ensure that your message gets heard.

5. Form partnerships with outside groups. Working with local nonprofit groups and government agencies can reduce costs and improve outcomes. The most comprehensive approach is to partner with a group like Single Stop, which provides financial-support services to students at about 20 colleges. But colleges can also form one-to-one and even event-driven partnerships, like the collaboration of Skyline College, in California, with the local human-services agency to provide same-day approval for food stamps.

6. Normalize the use of benefits. Your efforts won't work if your students are ashamed to seek assistance. Make sure your marketing and communications to students are straightforward, nonstigmatizing, and clear. Present public benefits as simply another form of financial aid — temporary assistance that will help them get to their goal of graduating.

Sources: Lumina Foundation, "Beyond Financial Aid"; DVP-Praxis Ltd., "Public Benefits and Community Colleges: Lessons From the Benefits Access for College Completion Evaluation"; Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success at the Center for Law and Social Policy"Benefits Access for College Completion: Lessons Learned From a Community College Initiative to Help Low-Income Students"