Coupling public benefits and student services

By Daily Staff

Community colleges that participated in an initiative to increase low-income students’ access to public benefits, such as food assistance and Medicaid, were better able to help students complete college.    

The results of the two-and-a-half-year Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) initiative are documented in a new report from the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success (CLASP). Launched in 2011, BACC funded seven community colleges to develop and implement sustainable policies and practices to embed benefit access strategies into their operations, such as student services, financial aid, counseling and advising.

It’s critical for eligible students to access benefits that can help them survive financially while earning credentials that will allow them to attain a higher-paying job, according to the report. 

While tuition is relatively low at community colleges, the total annual cost of attending college is about $16,833, which includes living costs and fees, as well as tuition, according to the report. Students with unmet financial needs often have to work more hours, take fewer courses or even drop out. 

Each college in the BACC initiative used different strategies. However, all of them found that increasing access to public benefits was more effective when combined with services in which students were already engaged.   

The benefits and programs for which students might be eligible include: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Child Care Development Block Grant; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Children’s Health Insurance Program; housing assistance; and federal and state transportation assistance programs.    

Partnerships with agencies

Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) called its BACC program Project Go! and partnered with the Ohio Benefit Bank (OBB), the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Cleveland Food Bank to provide assistance to students. The college found it was most effective to house the services in its student financial aid and scholarships department and used peer financial coaches to help students apply for benefits using OBB’s online application.    

After trying different approaches, Tri-C targeted students with an expected family contribution of up to $3,000 and who said they weren’t receiving public benefits on their application for student aid. The college flagged the records of students who fell within the targeted cohort and required them to contact the Project Go! Benefits Access office.    

Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania focused on students at or below the federal poverty line who had dependents, earned at least 15 credits and had at least a 2.0 GPA. The program also reached out to dislocated workers, those enrolled in non-credit coursework and students who had not filled out a federal student aid application.    

Benefit access specialists contacted eligible students to set up appointments, helped them apply for benefits online and referred them to additional supports.    

The other colleges participating in the BACC initiative were Gateway Community and Technical College (Kentucky), LaGuardia Community College (New York), Lake Michigan College (Michigan), Macomb Community College (Michigan) and Skyline College (California).  

Leadership is critical

The work to carry out the objectives of the BACC program was difficult, as the program called for colleges to develop a new culture, new infrastructure, supportive staff and community-based partnerships, the report says. To succeed, the report found these factors to be most important:     

  • Strong institutional leadership is needed to ensure that everyone at the college understands why benefits access is important and how it fits into the institution’s completion agenda.    
  • Integrating access to public benefits into the college structure is more effective when combined with other services and offices that students already engage with, such as student support services, financial aid and advising.   
  • College leaders can overcome cultural barriers within the institution by ensuring faculty and staff understand that benefits access is part of the college’s mission to educate low-income students.   
  • Colleges need the ability and capacity to produce and track data so they can better target potentially eligible students and determine how many are helped.   
  • Strong internal partnerships among faculty and staff are critical.  
  • Colleges need to partner with local and state agencies to understand the rules and procedures to gain access to benefits.   
  • Colleges need to employ strategies for helping students understand the value of applying for benefits and reduce the stigma some students feel about accepting public assistance.

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