Using Student Workers to Provide Comprehensive Financial Supports to Increase College Completion

By Katherine Saunders

For low-income community college students managing multiple responsibilities such as family, work, and school, financial aid and access to public benefits (such as SNAP, health insurance, or child care assistance) are critical to economic stability and college completion. In an effort to integrate access to state and federal supports and other existing public resources into college operations, seven community colleges participated in a three-year initiative called Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) to develop and implement strategies and practices to increase the number of students earning postsecondary credentials.

Three of the colleges—Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC), and Skyline College—used innovative and successful strategies to implement their benefits access work through the use of student workers. Student workers have proven very effective, carrying out a number of key functions, including:

  • Clerical work: data entry, scheduling appointments, and answering phones.
  • Outreach: classroom presentations, setting up tables in well-trafficked areas of the campus to inform students about the programs, and designing and distributing promotional materials.
  • Screening: using online or software-based screening tools to determine likely eligibility for public benefits.
  • Application assistance and follow-up: helping students apply for benefits using online tools or hard copy applications; helping them gather documents needed to verify information on the applications; and following up to address any roadblocks and ensure they receive the benefits for which they are eligible.
  • Referrals to other services and experts: connecting students with additional resources ranging from financial aid to legal services to emergency needs like food and shelter. 

Buy-in from institutional decision makers is critical to the success of programs that use student workers to provide access to public benefits. Having influential decision makers (such as the college president) on board can make a tremendous difference in the amount of resources available and supports provided. Additionally, by building partnerships throughout the college, in particular with the Financial Aid and Student Services Offices, a program can secure both student workers and referrals of students who are likely eligible to receive services based on their financial aid data.

Project managers and program coordinators should strike a balance that gives new student workers an introduction to benefits without an overwhelming amount of detail.  Additionally, using online pre-screening and screening tools that simplify the process of determining likely eligibility for benefits prevents student workers from having to become eligibility experts; they need only know the basics and understand how to effectively use the screening tools and assist with applications.

Colleges that have relied on student worker assistance recommend that others do so as well. To learn more, read CLASP’s brief detailing specific strategies other colleges and universities can use to implement student workers connect more low-income students to comprehensive financial supports.