How One College Helps Its Students Navigate the Maze of Social Services

By Kelly Field

The week before, she’d tried to apply for welfare at one county office, but she was told it was the wrong one, she explains to Alexandra Kennedy, the student who is helping her navigate the application process. When she went to another, the benefits analyst was discouraging, telling her that her car was worth too much for her to qualify, that she won’t get any money for books, that she wouldn’t be able to make rent even with welfare.

Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, tells Alex that the analyst has given her 10 days to complete "a bunch more forms," including an affidavit stating that her mother is paying her rent and bills directly instead of giving her cash, which would count as income.

Alex, a welfare recipient and single mom herself, is sympathetic. She tells Maria the analyst was wrong about her car and the books. "Sometimes we encounter barriers," she says. "It can make you want to give up. But we’re not going to."

"If they don’t want to help people, why are they social workers?" asks Maria, who has been taking general-education classes at Skyline since her son entered kindergarten in 2013.

"For me, it’s about helping you; for them, it’s about not screwing up," Alex answers. "They can get in serious trouble for disbursing cash to people who aren’t eligible."

She turns to her computer and begins typing an affidavit for Maria’s mother: "I do not give my daughter money for rent or bills," she writes.

She asks Maria how she is surviving without income, and presses for details on how much money her mother gives her for gas. "We have to paint a clear picture" for the benefits analyst, Alex explains. "She’s going to ask you how you pay for toilet paper, for toothpaste."

Maria says she’s scraping by with the remainder of her tax refund and a credit card. She estimates that her mother gives her $20 a week for gas.

Alex finishes typing, prints out the affidavit, and gives it to Maria for her mother to sign. She reminds Maria to have her landlord sign a form verifying her rent and to gather the other documents the analyst is seeking. And she tells Maria she’s going to report the analyst for being misinformed and rude.

Maria is grateful, and close to tears. "Being in that room, when you feel the person is trying to say you don’t need anything, you get nervous," she says. "I’m just trying to get back on my feet."

Closing the Gap

She’s not the only one. Each month, Skyline helps between 10 and 15 students and community members apply for public benefits. It is one of a small but growing number of community colleges that are looking beyond financial aid to help cover the living expenses that often delay or derail adult students.

For Maria, who hopes to become a nurse, the money she might receive through the state’s financial-assistance program, known as CalWorks, could mean the difference between staying in college and dropping out. For Skyline, it could mean another student who graduates or transfers at a time when colleges are facing intense pressure from policy makers and the public to improve their outcomes for low-income students.

Skyline’s tuition and fees are low, even by community college standards, at just under $1,500 for in-state students. But San Mateo County, where the college is located, is home to some of the most affluent neighborhoods in California, and the cost of living is high — over $11,000 on average for a student who doesn’t live with family. Tack on books and supplies, and the cost reaches $18,500, nearly $2,000 above the national average. About half of undergraduates receive financial aid, averaging around $2,500.

That means that many students at Skyline face significant unmet need — the difference between what a college costs and what a student can afford to pay. Research shows that high levels of unmet need often force students to borrow more, work more hours, take fewer classes, or drop out altogether.

Public benefits — programs like welfare, food stamps, child-care subsidies, and transportation assistance — can help reduce unmet need, increasing the odds that a student will graduate. Yet the research also shows that many students who are eligible for benefits fail to apply. Billions in government benefits go unclaimed each year.

Recognizing this disconnect, nonprofit organizations like Single Stop, the Benefit Bank, and Seedco have set up shop on a few dozen college campuses, offering help to students applying for public benefits, along with other financial support. But few community colleges have incorporated benefits access into the campus culture as systematically as Skyline has.

Skyline, which serves 10,000 students, three-quarters of them part-time, has offered financial education and coaching through its United Way SparkPoint center since 2010. It added benefits-eligibility screening and application assistance in 2012, when it became part of a three-year pilot project at seven community colleges.

The project was administered by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the American Association of Community Colleges and was supported by a $5-million grant from the Ford, Kresge, Lumina and Open Society Foundations. It sought to test the hypothesis that by increasing access to benefits, colleges could raise their graduation rates too.

The results from the experiment were encouraging, if limited. Researchers analyzed outcomes data from only the smallest of the participants, Gateway Community and Technical College, in Kentucky, and found that low-income students who received public benefits enrolled in more terms than those who didn’t. However, the researchers didn’t find any statistically significant differences in the number of credits the students earned or the likelihood that they ended up with a college credential.

At Skyline, 79 percent of students who received a single service from SparkPoint’s suite of supports continued on from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2015, compared to 64 percent of all students. Ninety-seven percent of students who received three services did.

The research shows intangible benefits as well. A 2012 study by Single Stop found that students who received help applying for public benefits felt less frustrated and isolated than when they tried to go it alone. By supporting students through an often-convoluted process, the participating colleges increased "students’ confidence that their institution ‘gets’ them and is working on their behalf," the study found.

There’s a dollars-and-cents argument to be made for providing benefits assistance, too. Simply put: More retention means more revenue.

Overcoming Stigma

Skyline had a head start on its peers when the pilot project started in 2012. The college already had a central services hub on campus, and it had supportive leadership. So it didn’t have to decide where to put the project, nor did it have to sell the idea internally.

Still, SparkPoint’s leaders did have to educate students and staff about the program while tackling some of the stigmas surrounding public benefits. It wasn’t always easy.

At first the project’s leaders envisioned that students would sign up in groups through workshops hosted by SparkPoint and the financial-aid office. They sent text messages to students, set up tables in the dining halls, posted flyers around campus, and trained faculty to prescreen students for eligibility.

That approach had several problems. The faculty didn’t have time for the five-to-seven minute prescreening sessions, and the mass marketing didn’t attract many students. The students who did show up for the workshops often didn’t complete their applications.

So the college replaced the workshops with individual appointments, and started having faculty members refer students but not screen them. It focused its direct marketing on students who were likely to qualify for the benefits (such as students who had applied to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors for a waiver of their enrollment fees), while continuing to promote the program broadly in classrooms and at student orientations.

To make sure students understood the process, and to encourage follow-through, project leaders created a document that laid out the "six easy steps to get benefits" and began issuing cards reminding students of appointments. Staff members made multiple calls to students reminding them to submit documents.

Those changes were time-consuming, but they increased students’ application and approval rates. Still, project leaders found that some students were reluctant to come forward because of the stigma associated with public assistance.

Megan Mather, a student and single mother who worked in the office a couple years ago, said some students would "walk to the door, see other people in there, and turn around."

Part of the problem was the early fliers, which included questions like "Are you struggling to pay your bills?," said Heather D. Smith, SparkPoint’s program-services director. "Who is going to pick that up in front of their peers?"

Skyline scrapped the fliers and hired a cultural-proficiency trainer to work with its public-benefits staff on body language, tone, and word choice. Today the fliers are less inquisitive, with straightforward headings like "cash, food & health-care resources" alongside photos of diverse families. A sign outside the entrance to the SparkPoint hub invites students to "discover a world of resources, just for you."

"We had to get away from that power dynamic where you need the help and we have the answers," Ms. Smith said.

But the thing that made the biggest difference was hiring students who understood the plight of their peers.

Continuing the Work

At Skyline, screenings and application assistance are provided by students who receive public benefits themselves.

Ms. Smith said students seem more comfortable sharing sensitive personal information about pregnancy, drug felonies, homelessness, domestic violence, and poverty with students who have experienced such challenges themselves.

Alex, one of two "student benefits ambassadors" this year, says she doesn’t really like telling people she’s on welfare. But "I open up, because it establishes trust."

"The whole process is extremely intimidating," she said. "People are overwhelmed."

Through CalWorks, Alex gets $1,000 a month in cash assistance, plus $400 for gas and money for textbooks. She has to jump through a lot of hoops to get the aid — including filling out a time chart showing what she’s doing every hour her son is in child care — but without that support, she’d have to work more and "would probably be struggling in class."

"The only reason I’m as far as I am today is because of CalWorks," she said.

Alex is studying business. She hopes to transfer to Stanford, though she says that’s "a pipe dream." If she doesn’t get in, she’ll try for San Francisco State University or the University of San Francisco.

The pilot project that Skyline was participating in ended two years ago, but the college has cobbled together money from the United Way, Achieving the Dream, and the state community-college system to continue the benefits program. It gets $10,000 from the county to register students — traditionally, a hard-to-reach population — for food stamps. CalWorks and the Federal Work-Study program cover most of the costs of the student ambassadors.

Four years in, said Ms. Smith, "we’re woven into the fabric of the campus."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her atkelly.field@chronicle.com. Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.