Benefits Access for College Completion: Lessons Learned from a Community College Initiative to Help Low-Income Students

By Duy Pham

A new report from CLASP analyzes how students were served by Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC), a 2.5-year initiative designed to increase access to public benefits (such as SNAP or Medicaid) for eligible low-income students. These crucial supports reduce students’ unmet financial needs and help them finish school.

Launched in 2011, BACC funded seven community colleges to develop and implement sustainable policies and practices for embedding benefits access strategies into their operations. CLASP’s report, Lessons Learned from a Community College Initiative to Help Low-Income Students, outlines challenges and successes experienced by college sites as well as statewide systems.

Among colleges participating in BACC, no two institutions employed the same benefit access strategy. However, all the institutions found that increasing access to public benefits was more effective when combined with other services in which students already engage, such as financial aid, counseling, and advising. In addition, CLASP found that colleges’ success with integrating and sustaining benefits depended on:

  • The role of institutional leadership in fostering buy-in success;
  • Changes in student flow and business processes;
  • Actions to overcome cultural barriers within the institution;
  • The capacity to produce and use data;
  • The importance of collaboration and teamwork within the colleges;
  • New relationships with local and state benefits agencies; and
  • The need to overcome student stigma.

Drawing on data from an evaluation of BACC, the report also demonstrates how increased access to benefits improves student progress toward degree completion. This is especially true for students who bundle multiple benefits while enrolled.

The success of CLASP’s BACC initiative confirms the importance of public benefits for low-income students. By reducing unmet financial need, these supports help students complete school and enter the workforce. Institutions themselves also benefit through higher completion rates.  Federal and state policymakers should leverage the lessons of BACC to better align public benefits and financial aid rules, as well as ensure postsecondary attendance is supported by public benefits programs, to help low-income students build skills, obtain credentials, and succeed in today’s economy.

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