Joint Agency Letter Highlights Importance of Benefits Access for Postsecondary Students

By Lauren Walizer and Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield

On November 15, 2016, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King announced a joint agency letter highlighting how benefits access for postsecondary students can support college completion. Examples of student supports include access to public benefits, student aid, child care, and delivery strategies like career pathways. The letter represents years of hard work by federal and state officials and higher education institutions as well as strong advocacy from CLASP and other experts.

“Aligning Federal Supports and Program Delivery for College Access and Completion”—released through a collaboration by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Treasury—is particularly relevant for low-income, nontraditional students, such as parents, independent adults, and first-generation college students. Recognizing the importance of postsecondary credential attainment to the economy, and the difficulties students face in finishing their degrees, states and institutions have set ambitious college completion targets, with several states awarding funding based on the outcomes of their institutions. Now, more than ever, college completion strategies are at a premium.

CLASP applauds the agencies for their work to streamline access to financial supports and postsecondary education. As unmet financial need has climbed for low-income students, CLASP has strongly emphasized the need for a comprehensive aid system that connects financial aid, public benefits, and refundable tax credits. We have also highlighted the importance of access to high-quality postsecondary education and training as a means for low-income recipients of public benefits, such as TANF and SNAP, to attain family-supporting jobs. The letter addresses both populations, noting “it is critical to ensure current means-tested benefits recipients access educational and training opportunities, and to connect eligible students with available federal supports and to partner with states to ensure these resources support their communities effectively.”

The agencies’ goal is to help states, service providers, colleges, and universities better understand the flexibility that exists within means-tested programs to support low-income students, how to coordinate among programs, and what resources may be available to both low-income students and public benefits recipients. This is a promising signal of cross-agency cooperation and broad recognition that many parts of a student’s life, particularly finances, affect his or her completion prospects.

The letter highlights recent guidance and resources from the six agencies that encourage increased alignment of federal programs to support postsecondary access and completion.

We appreciate the agencies’ commitment to aligning these programs to better support the college and career aspirations of low-income individuals. These are complex programs that are administered across local, state, and federal levels, making them challenging to synchronize. We encourage the federal government to further align policies and urge state governments to continue to simplify benefits access for low-income students and build stronger pathways out of poverty for those receiving public benefits.

With the recent elections decided, it’s time to get back to work.  CLASP is excited to collaborate with federal and state government, postsecondary institutions, and advocates to build a more comprehensive system of financial supports and preserve the ability for qualifying students to cross-participate in these critical programs. In the coming weeks, we will provide a more thorough analysis of the agencies’ guidance and resources to help advocates and stakeholders think critically about next steps.