Guidance on Public Benefits

By Tabitha Whissemore

Connecting college students to non-academic supports, in addition to financial aid, can help remove some of the barriers to access and completion.

The Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) initiative was designed on that assumption. The three-year, collaborative pilot involved seven community colleges tasked with devising models to increase benefits access for students.

new report highlights lessons learned from five of the colleges — Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio), Gateway Community and Technical College (Kentucky),LaGuardia Community College (New York), Northampton Community College(Pennsylvania) and Skyline College (California). Three key findings emerged from the initiative:

  • Colleges need a centralized hub to deliver benefits access services.
  • Students should have to opt-out of services.
  • Leadership at all levels of the college need to make the services an institution-wide priority.

Getting buy-in

At Gateway Community and Technical College (GCTC), many students were not receiving the benefits for which they were eligible.

“We knew that our students needed the support,” said Shellie Baker, GCTC’s coordinator for student success and engagement. “These benefits would help them stay in school and be self-sufficient.”

Leadership at the college linked benefits access to its accreditation plan, giving it the tagline, “Short-term assistance for long-term success.”

But while leadership was keen on the program, faculty and staff took some convincing. To help doubters see the benefits of BACC and to break negative stereotypes, the college held a poverty simulation for employees.

“It really opened eyes,” Baker said. “It brought awareness as to why this is so important.”

Benefits access was also a priority for LaGuardia Community College (LGCC). The college was already working to help low-income students develop strategies to help them stay in school and complete through its Single Stop office, which assists financially vulnerable families.

“Our president embraced the fact we needed to help students in meaningful ways,” said Michael Baston, vice president of student affairs at LGCC.

There was also a “true partnership” between academic and student affairs, and representatives from a cross-section of the college to “help us lift this work,” he said.

“Together, we recognize that moving students to the middle class and helping them complete is a college-wide effort that requires a multi-level strategy,” Baston said.

Centralizing services

Because of its accreditation plan, GCTC was already implementing more “intrusive” advising to ensure students were starting college off on the right foot. Advisors were referring students in need of public benefits, such as food stamps, to a dedicated benefits access coach with knowledge of community and state resources.

“Students didn’t have to figure it out on their own. We were able to help them and guide them to the resources,” Baker said.

Though BACC has ended, GCTC will continue to have a community resources specialist on staff.

Other BACC demonstration colleges also found it beneficial to have a single point of service for students, for multiple reasons, according to the BACC report. 

“Trying to offer benefits access services in multiple locations, and from multiple staff, inevitably led to variation in service delivery and inconsistent knowledge among the many staff tasked with providing benefits access services to students,” the report said.

Like LGCC, Skyline College started the BACC demonstration with benefits access services already in place. BACC enabled Skyline to transition services from overwhelmed financial coaches to a dedicated coordinator and trained student ambassadors.

At LGCC, the Single Stop office was moved to the financial aid center. By cross-training financial specialists in benefits access, students could learn about and connected to numerous financial resources. 

Opt-out encourages opt-in

Before students can access benefits, however, they have to know they’re there. Reaching eligible students proved difficult for all the demonstration colleges.

Rather than have students opt-in to benefits-access screening, colleges pre-screened students in various ways. LGCC and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) used data compiled from federal student aid applications to flag students who were potentially eligible for benefits.

At Tri-C, flagged students had to complete a pre-screening online for benefits access. Meanwhile, LGCC students were marked with a “positive service indicator,” then required to go to the Single Stop office to have the indicator removed. Though there were no negative implications for retaining the indicator, students felt a sense of urgency to get it off their record.

Information was also embedded into high-traffic areas on the LGCC campus. The college even recruited marketing students to help develop outreach campaigns. Making it a college-wide initiative helped to reduce the stigma of receiving public benefits, according to Baston.

In Kentucky, GCTC staff went to classrooms to have students fill out forms. Those who were eligible for benefits got a follow-up call from a success coach. Despite the direct approach, Baker said she was surprised “how many students didn’t apply.”

Getting results

What didn’t surprise Baker were the positive results for those who did get help. GCTC was the only college in the BACC report to have data on the impact of public benefits on academic outcomes. Between summer 2011 and fall 2013, students who received public benefits — the majority of whom were women and were likely to have children — enrolled in more terms. Those who received more than one public benefit earned a higher number of credits than those who received only one benefit or who received no benefits.

LGCC also saw “promising” signs of improvement from students receiving assistance, Baston said. There is evidence that a number of those students moved from part-time to full-time enrollment.

BACC was funded by the Ford Foundation, the Kresge FoundationLumina Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The Annie E. Casey Foundation also contributed to the initiative. It was managed by the Center for Law and Social Policy(CLASP) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).