Program Steers Struggling Students to Benefits That Help Them Stay in College

When Brian F. Smith started classes at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., last fall, the 43-year-old was unemployed and living alone in a nearby shelter for homeless veterans. His first attempt at college, back in 1987, hadn’t gone well; drugs, alcohol, and the streets occupied him more than his college classes.

This time around, it has been different. Through a pilot program that’s aimed at helping students at Northampton and several other colleges use public benefits, Mr. Smith is finding the financial assistance he needs-help in paying for car repairs, for instance-so he can stay in college.

The Benefits Access for College Completion program, which began last year at Northampton and six other institutions, challenges the colleges to figure out how to ease students’ financial burden by helping them apply for public benefits and complete their degrees. The colleges’ goal is to guide students like Mr. Smith, who admits there was a certain “fear factor” associated with seeking out public benefits, toward resources that can help.

In addition to Northampton, the institutions participating in the project are Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, Gateway Community and Technical College in Kentucky, the City University of New York’s LaGuardia Community College, Skyline College in California, and Lake Michigan College and Macomb Community College, both in Michigan.

The program is supported by a three-year, $4.84-million grant from the Ford, Kresge and Lumina Foundations and the Open Society Foundations. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is also contributing. The program is administered by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the American Association of Community Colleges.

Participating colleges began testing their ideas last fall, and it’s too early to gauge whether their tactics are influencing grades and retention. But so far they have connected students with a variety of social services and benefits, like transitional housing, gasoline vouchers, and money for groceries and textbooks. They are also experimenting with ways to identify students who might qualify for public benefits like food stamps but haven’tasked for them, and are helping eligible students apply for such assistance.

Money Matters

Students fail to finish college for a variety of reasons, but financial pressures appear to be the single largest factor, says Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy. She pointed to a 2009 survey in which 71 percent of young adults who left college cited a need to “go to work and make money” as a reason for doing so. Another analysis found that, in 2007-8, the average unmet need for half of community-college students was $4,500.

For Mr. Smith, seeking out public benefits with the help of Northampton meant not having to worry as much when the tires needed replacing on his 1999 Jeep Cherokee last November. Or again in May, when it looked as if that vehicle-the one he uses to commute to the college and drive his 9-year-old son to school-was on the verge of breaking down. The extra help, he says, has “taken a lot of pressure off” as he works toward his degree. So far, he made the honor roll in his first semester and has become president of Band of Brothers, a student veterans’ organization.

To make sure the effects of the program outlast the timeline of the grant, participating colleges are encouraged to figure out how to make better use of procedures already in place-such as folding reminders about benefits assistance into admissions offers, training financial-aid officers to refer students to community resources, or building upon existing relationships with local shelters or outreach programs.

At LaGuardia Community College, President Gail O. Mellow said she’d like to break down the stigma sometimes associated with seeking public benefits and encourage students to view it as an extension of traditional assistance, like financial aid, that colleges already provide.

“We want to do everything we can to ameliorate the effects of poverty on student ability,” she said.

Sending a Message

Red flags hinting at students’ financial challenges have troubled some faculty members and administrators at the participating colleges for years.

What can you do, they wondered, when a student starts dozing off in class because he worked an overnight shift to make ends meet? How do you help a student whose search for a part-time job to afford groceries takes priority over studying for a test? In which direction do you point someone who writes an essay that mentions he hasn’t been able to afford the bills for a serious medical condition?

At the participating colleges, finding the answers has required some self-reflection for everyone involved. Michelle Baker, who is coordinator for student success and engagement at Gateway, in Kentucky, said her institution had held a “poverty simulation” in which participating faculty and staff members went through a role-playing scenario-as someone who’s homeless, as a child in a low-income family, or as a single parent, for example-meant to deepen their understanding of the challenges their students might be facing.

After the simulation was over, one faculty member said the scenarios seemed somewhat “unrealistic”-an assumption one of the 20 student volunteers in attendance was quick to correct.

Since the program began, Ms. Duke-Benfield said, faculty members have been responsible for the highest numbers of student referrals at some of the participating colleges.

Donna Acerra, a professor of communication at Northampton who has sought out help for many of her students, said offering such services also sends a clear message to students: We’re in your corner, and you don’t have to do it alone.

To critics who question whether colleges should be in the business of facilitating such public benefits, Ms. Duke-Benfield makes clear that the program is not trying to give students benefits “so they can be on the dole forever.” The short-term assistance sets up students to be in a better position to give back to their communities once they graduate, she said.

Indeed, Mr. Smith hopes to use the business-administration degree he’s pursuing at Northampton to start a network of learning centers in the Lehigh Valley to help kids who, like him, grew up in low-income families.

Ever since he stayed after class to talk to someone who gave a short presentation on Northampton’s benefits program last fall, he’s received “nothing but blessings” from the school.

“Just a little bit of help is all I’m asking,” Mr. Smith said. “I’ll take it from there.”

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