Beyond Financial Aid: Helping Adult Students With the Cost of College

Cost is the main barrier facing many adults who pursue postsecondary credentials. As costs have increased, state and federal financial aid has not kept up. Unmet need (the gap between expenses and what adult students can pay) averages roughly $8,000 for the lowest-income students, a shortfall that they try to make up by working more hours, attending part-time and taking out sizable loans—all of which make completion more challenging. As more states provide free college through promise programs, it is important to remember that for many adult students attending lower-cost public institutions, living expenses are often costlier than tuition and fees.

In light of these financial challenges, states can look beyond financial aid to a broader set of financial supports to help more low-income adult students. Providing low-income students access to public benefits — like subsidized child care, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — can reduce unmet need, decrease debt levels, increase financial stability and help students care for their families.

These programs provide states flexibility in determining rules that impact adult students, but many of these programs’ goals are not well-aligned with state goals of increasing the number of college graduates. In an effort to make it easier for states to align these policies, six federal department secretaries released a federal interagency letter, “Aligning Federal Supports and Program Delivery for College Completion,” that highlighted how those who are receiving benefits, such as SNAP or subsidized housing, can benefit from federal financial aid to go to college. The resources connected to the letter provide valuable guidance for states to better align public benefits rules to support college attendance and completion, and to help put low-income students on a path to economic independence.

Here are two examples:

Subsidized child care, which is often funded through the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant, allows states to set a range of rules, including whether it allows standalone education and training as a qualifying factor. Most states do so, but a handful of states require parents to pair schooling with 20 hours/week of work in order to qualify. Yet studies show that students working more than 20 hours/week while attending college are less likely to finish. Such a limitation also makes it difficult for parents to attend full time.

SNAP has a complex set of rules for students attending postsecondary education and training more than part-time, but states have some flexibility in how they define certain exceptions. For example, states can define whether low-income students enrolled in college more than part-time and in certain career and occupationally oriented programs qualify. In addition, some low-income students receiving federal or state work-study funds are eligible, which provides states the opportunity to strategically invest that money.

Early next year, CLASP will co-release a brief with Education Commission of the States that helps states understand how they can more comprehensively address the financial needs of low-income students through better alignment of public benefits programs that promote postsecondary access and completion. Given that financial aid is insufficient in covering all of the costs of attending college, it’s important that states ensure they are maximizing their options.

This post was originally featured on the Ed Note Blog of the Education Commission of the States.