New report proposes helping students qualify for benefits including food stamps

With tuition up, income flat, statistics show some students can’t afford to regularly eat

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

How much trouble are some community college students having paying their way through college? Advocates say the government should make it easier for them to get public benefits such as food stamps as a form of financial aid.

That was one of the ideas put forward at a forum to explore how public benefits can be better leveraged to fill the huge financial gaps that confront low-income students.

“We really need to re-conceptualize how we view financial aid,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior postsecondary policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, which advocates for low-income people, and which hosted the forum.

Duke-Benfield called for easing some of the work requirements of public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which offers up to $194 per month to people who work 20 hours a week. The rule makes the program incompatible with going to college, she said, citing research that students who work that many hours per week are less likely to graduate.

Duke-Benfield also said more must be done to make public benefits from childcare to housing and utility assistance seem “normal and a good thing” to help community college students.

“We’re talking about a small population of people, but we’re talking about people who are no different than an 18-year-old who wants to go to college and get a good job,” she said.

CLASP’s proposal to help community college students qualify for public benefits comes against the backdrop of calls from the Obama Administration to make community college free, and on the heels of a report that found half of all community college students are going hungry. About one in five have skipped meals because they couldn’t afford food, that report found.

More than 200 food pantries have been opened on college campuses, some at wealthy universities, where low-income students apparently are going without eating, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance.

If these reports identify a problem, Duke-Benfield’s proposal to help students qualify for public benefits is meant as a solution, albeit an elusive one. One of the obstacles is removing the stigma associated with getting welfare, said Angela Johnson, executive director of enrollment and financial aid at Cuyahoga Community College.

For that reason, she said, a project on her campus that helps students apply for public benefits is housed in the office of financial aid so no one knows if students are visiting to apply for public benefits or pick up tuition grants.

It’s unclear how many of the nation’s 12.4 million community college students stand to gain from getting public assistance, and, even if they do, how much of a difference the benefits will make, if any, in the rate at which they graduate.

CLASP says low-income community college students have an average of $7,734 annually in “unmet need” in paying for college. It says nearly 41 percent of community college students have incomes of under $20,000, while the average tuition, fees, and living costs come to $16,833.

Johnson said Cuyahoga students who get public help persist — that is, remain in school from one semester to the next — at a rate of five percentage points higher than those who don’t get public benefits.

Duke-Benfield said CLASP oversaw a 27-month program that involved providing public benefits to students at seven community colleges, but wasn’t able to determine how it affected graduation rates because the program didn’t last long enough.

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