New report promotes easy path to public benefits for low-income college students

By Melanie Graysmith

It is no surprise that low-income students struggle to cover the cost of their college education. Financial aid or tuition waivers often do not cover the additional costs low-income students need to juggle while attending college. Books, health care, child care, housing and food care, although necessities, can be a burden for many students attending college while at the same time holding down full or part-time jobs, in spite of the need to focus on studies.

According to a the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income people, more than 90 percent of full-time community college students with annual incomes below $28,000 in 2011-2012 had financial needs not met by their financial aid or grants. The financial burden and related stress of this situation often create added pressure on students.

Recognizing that financial stress stands in the way of student success, a new report released by CLASP contends that current federal and state social assistance programs could extend to supplement student aid for more low-income students, yet an array of conflicting requirements, with no coordination of the various assistance programs, stand in the way. The CLASP report, Bolstering Non-Traditional Student Success, makes numerous suggestions on how more low-income students could take advantage of government programs for housing, food, child care, health and other benefits to help keep students in college.

According to Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, the report’s author and a senior policy analyst at CLASP’s Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, the goal is for students to work less and enroll in full-time classes, and not be forced to either drop credits or drop out of college altogether.

“All of these benefits are temporary support,” said Duke-Benfield. “We need to think of them as a short-term investment for a long-term gain.” A 2009 survey of young adults detailed in the report, showed 71 percent said they left college because they needed to “go to work and make money.”

Interestingly, many public benefits available to students require them to work 20 hours or more, although another study by Georgetown University found that students who work in excess of 15 hours a week suffer academically.

Duke-Benfield said, “We do have to acknowledge some degree of work is probably required for these [assistance] programs,” although the current work levels may need to be re-evaluated.

Student Homelessness Is Real

Understanding all the requirements and details of the various public can be pretty formidable for qualified low-income students, according to Katherine Broton, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and author of a recent study that examined student homelessness.

The study, based on web surveys and released by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, found 13 percent of community college students faced some type of homelessness while more than half struggled with food uncertainty.

Broton offered, “The social safety net is challenging to navigate for almost anyone, let alone someone going to school full-time, working one or two jobs, or has dependent children and other things going on in their life.” She added, “It’s wise to consider what existing resources are available to students to make sure they are accessing the programs and policies we have in place to support them.”

The case for public assistance for students cannot be underestimated. “Public benefits can serve as an important and necessary short-term support for the longer-term gain of a college degree and ultimately a job that supports a family and the larger community,” Broton said.

The report also highlights challenges that create difficulties in connecting public benefits and financial programs. For one, many government assistance programs are not geared to students, plus colleges often are not aware of ways those programs can help their students.

Some institutions though are already doing work on their own to connect low-income students with access to public benefits, according to Duke-Benfield, the report’s author. CLASP and the American Association of Community Colleges currently manage theBenefits Access for College Completion, a multiyear initiative that links low-income students with easy access to public benefits.

Unfortunately, many of the programs are themselves financially strapped, creating possible long waiting lists, such as happens for public housing and state run child care programs. Additionally, there is potential political repercussion to states or federal governments about increasing the number of people who receive public benefits. But increasing not only access to higher education for low-income students, but also to student retention rates should be the goal, for all the obvious reasons.

In order to make progress on these much needed issues, Duke-Benfield said two things need to happen: “We need to have more colleges engaged in this work to have more students succeed and connect them to public benefits, and our policies should align to ensure students succeed by being connected to public benefits.” She continued, “Then at the federal and state level we need to decide that we’re truly committed to equality and opportunity for low-income people and people of color so we can better align our policies to pathways that lead to jobs.”

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