A Helping Hand: Pilot Programs Links Needy Students To Public Benefits

Can a couple of hundred dollars make the difference between a student earning a college degree or not? Can access to social services like food stamps or subsidized day care or a reduced-cost bus pass be the difference between student success and failure?

A pilot program involving seven community colleges is trying to find out.

Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) is a three-year, $4.84 million initiative funded by the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations, and managed by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the American Association of Community Colleges.

The initiative aims to help low-income students connect to coordinated income supports such as child care subsidies and food assistance. Data from the initiative will be evaluated to see if low-income students who receive such supports stay in school longer and complete their studies more quickly.

For community colleges, it’s an important experiment. As the country tries to shrug off the effects of a devastating recession, community colleges have been given an important charge: helping students improve their lives through education, whether they are tying to earn a degree, transfer to a university or burnish their job skills. But for the growing number of community college students who occupy the bottom rungs of the country’s economic ladder, the path to college success can be strewn with financial barriers.

New data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that college costs continue to climb. In-state tuition at community colleges jumped almost 6 percent, to an average of $3,131 last year. Those figures, however, cover only part of college costs. According to a College Board survey, the price of housing and food is even higher than tuition for most students.

While more students than ever before are accessing financial aid to cover tuition and other costs – 57 percent of community college students received some kind of aid last year – they won’t make it to graduation without some extra help.

Regina Stroud, president of Skyline College, one of the schools involved in the initiative, put it this way in an article she authored www.spotlightonpoverty.org: “What may be a minor economic challenge or inconvenience to higher-income people can actually have such a cascading impact on low-income students that they are unable to continue their studies. The loss of a pair of prescription eyeglasses or a broken thermostat in the car can result in a student failing to complete coursework or reach class on time, falling behind and in turn altogether dropping out of school.”

Public assistance and refundable tax credits can help low-income students, who now make-up 40 percent of the community college student population, fill the gap between financial aid and the resources needed to attend college. The initiative’s aim is to help students complete their studies swiftly and move into jobs which pay family-sustaining wages so they won’t need such support in the future.

“This is not about building dependence,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, project manager for CLASP. “It’s about building independence. It’s short-term assistance for long-term gain.”

According to the College Board, the average full-time community college student had more than $6,000 in unmet financial need in 2011-12. That means that 66 percent of young community college students opt to work 20 or more hours a week to help pay for school and their home and family obligations, and 58 percent attend college part-time. Both scenarios are serious barriers to student success. More than 70 percent of community college students who drop out cite financial burdens and work obligations as their main reasons.

“We need to reframe the discussion about financial aid,” Benfield-Duke said. “There are thousands of dollars in unmet need. Pell Grants don’t cover everything. In some cases, they don’t even cover tuition.”

Each college involved in the project has created their own plan to integrate screening and application assistance for public benefits with services the schools already provide, such as financial aid counseling. Each college took into account local resources and policy contexts to develop strategies to assist students.

“I do not think that one size fits all,” Benfield-Duke said. “If this is going to be sustained, each college will decide how it fits on their campus. It’s up to each college to decide how to embed this.”

Skyline College, for example, has located a small food pantry on campus so students who need emergency food can access it. The college has also trained staff to help students apply for food stamps.

Across the country, in Pennsylvania, Northampton Community College connects students to the state program which helps low-income people pay for high utility costs.

At Macomb Community College, in Michigan, a program called Dreamkeepers provides short-term, non-academic financial aid to low-income students who are faced with issues such as utility shutoffs, car repairs or lack of child care.

Kristin Carey Li, Macomb’s manager of student success, said that the maximum grant is $500, and the average grant is less than $400. But the grants have had a dramatic impact because the assistance is immediate and targeted. Hundreds of students have applied for the grants, and about 170 grants have been issued, she said.

“Even $200 can make a big difference,” she said. “When a student faces a one-time financial crisis – an eviction, a utility shutoff, car repairs – we try to meet that need. We have a lot of students who are really stretching their dollars. A grant like this can make a huge difference.”

Another component of Macomb’s BACC programs is called SOS – Student Options for Success. It provides access for low-income students to public benefits, community and college resources and emergency grants. The program is based on the belief that some highly motivated students need help to keep the lights on, find affordable housing or find day care for their children.

Located near Detroit, which was devastated by the recession, Macomb has many students in need of a boost. About 300 students have been assisted by BACC, Li said. Many students find themselves in need to assistance for the very first time, and have no idea how to navigate the system.

They seem grateful for the help. Li has been collecting anonymous quotes from students who have tapped BACC benefits, and here’s a representative sample:

“The SOS program has been a vast resource of support and encouragement. They have offered me services from eviction and shut off notice support to childcare and food assistance. What I love most about this program is not that they just pass the information on to you and then you never hear from them ever again, but that they are always there for you checking in and making sure that everything is going well for you and to see if they can be of any assistance. Every person deserves a chance to gain an education and with SOS by my side, I know that my education and career goals will truly be made possible.”

Students at Gateway Community and Technical College in Kentucky are equally grateful. Jennifer Case and her fiancé, Andy Doyen, said access to childcare assistance allowed the couple to attend school knowing that their son Andrew was being cared for in a safe setting.

“Any aid we receive is helpful,” Case said. “However, the childcare has been the most beneficial because my son is now in a day care facility where he can interact with other children his age.”

“We do not have to stress so much about how our bills are going to be paid and who was going to take care of our son. It has helped us to be able to focus more on our studies and allow us to be more interactive in class and work.”

Sarah Young, the BACC student success coach at Gateway, said the couple was receiving only food stamps when she started working with them. Today, they receive welfare benefits, child care assistance and are in enrolled in Gateway’s Ready to Work program. The program is a collaboration between the state community college system and state government and allows welfare recipients to gain work experience without reducing welfare benefits.

“What we try to do is advocate for the student,” Young said. “There are a lot of students who don’t know that benefits are available.” Faculty have been charged with spreading the word during their classes and are encouraged to identify needy students, she said.

The pilot program will extend through the fall semester of 2014. BACC will then share the most successful strategies and lessons learned with policymakers and other community colleges in hope of improving retention and credential completion.

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