Student Aid Perspectives: Public, Means-Tested Benefits Can Help Low-income Students Make Ends Meet
By Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield
One of the principal barriers to more students pursuing and completing college is the lack of sufficient financial aid and family income. Over the last three decades, college tuition and fees have increased nearly four times faster than median income and four-and-a-half times faster than inflation. The rapid increase in college prices, along with student aid funding that has not kept up, has resulted in sizable unmet need. Unmet financial need among low-income students is a barrier to persistence and completion and challenges our national credential attainment goals. For instance, although community college tuition and fees are relatively low, these costs are only a small portion of the overall cost of attendance for students. In 2015-16, a year at a community college was estimated by the College Board to cost $16,833, including tuition, fees, and living costs.
For students without parental support, an increasing number of whom are supporting families of their own, the real cost is even higher, given that housing, food, and child care costs add to the total. Financial aid, including loans, can help cover these costs, but low-income students do not receive sufficient grant aid to meet them and nor should they be expected to take out large loans. For the lowest-income community college students, unmet need averaged $7,734 annually. Significant percentages of very low-income dependent students also had unmet need. And unmet need is markedly higher for students of color than their white counterparts. High levels of unmet need have forced students—particularly low-income students—to borrow more, work more hours, take fewer courses, or in some cases, drop out altogether.
While student unmet need rises, the demographics of students are changing as well. For instance, 26 percent of college students are raising children and 38 percent are older than 25. Nearly half of first year students live at or below poverty and 47 percent are financially independent, so not supported by their parents.
There is a growing public understanding that student aid alone isn’t enough to help students fund their postsecondary aspirations because some are unable to meet their basic human needs with existing supports. A recent Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of over 4,000 students at 10 community colleges across the country found that half of all students are facing food and/or housing insecurity. Even more disturbing is that 20 percent are hungry and 13 percent are homeless. A growing policy dialogue has emphasized providing a more comprehensive set of financial supports as a means of persisting in and completing college. If more low-income students are to complete postsecondary education and training, particularly those who are non-traditional, it will be necessary to provide adequate financial aid that not only covers tuition and books, but also living expenses including housing, food, and health insurance.
Public, means-tested benefits, such as food stamps and child care assistance, can temporarily help low-income students make ends meet while in school, and some students have sought out such supports. These programs can reduce unmet need by supplementing the patchwork resources students currently use, increase the financial stability of adults and youth, and help them care for their families. "Beyond recruitment, community colleges need to be able to retain students and help them complete their degrees. This is where benefit access programs come in. These programs are one of the most important retention strategies of community colleges," said Jim Jacobs, President of Macomb Community College (MI).
Like financial aid programs, public benefits programs feature their own complex rules, some of which serve as a disincentive to low-income individuals attending college and others influence whether a student attends part- or full-time, decisions that can determine how fast a student completes and attains family-supporting employment. The main public benefits programs low-income students can access include: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which is more commonly known as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, sometimes called cash welfare), child care subsidies, subsidized health insurance (Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP, and the Advance Premium Tax Credits available under the Affordable Care Act), rental housing assistance, Unemployment Insurance, and utility assistance. Low-income students may also be eligible for refundable tax credits: the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit.
The administration of financial aid and public benefits programs does not rest with one level of government. It varies across federal, state, and local levels, which adds complexity to the interactions among these policies. Most states have developed online portals which allow students to apply online for benefits, making it easier to offer these services on campus.
It is important to note that many states tie eligibility for state-administered programs for those pursuing postsecondary attendance to part- or full-time employment, despite what research shows about part-time attendance leading to lower completion. For instance, SNAP has a complex set of rules meant to prevent the average full-time college student, who may look low-income due to low earnings while enrolled, from receiving benefits. But the program has established a set of exceptions that allow particular low-income students enrolled more than half time to quality, including those with young children, receiving Federal Work-Study, or enrolled in an occupationally-oriented program. States also have a high degree of flexibility whether postsecondary attendance is an allowable use of child care subsidies.
An increasing number of colleges are working to provide students with access to a full range of public benefits in order to reduce financial barriers to college completion. Efforts range from providing students with accurate information about benefits to screening them for program eligibility, to assisting them to fill out applications and gather documentation in order to enroll. Several embarked upon this work through participation in Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC), a multi-year initiative designed to provide community college students with access to a full range of public benefits in order to reduce financial barriers to college completion. “Community colleges share the goal of empowering their students – increasingly from disadvantaged backgrounds – to succeed in school and beyond. To achieve this goal, more community colleges will need to recognize the importance of anti-poverty work as part of an effective strategy for student access, progress, retention, and achievement,” said Regina Stanback Stroud, President of Skyline College (CA), whose college participated in BACC and connects low-income students to public benefits through its SparkPoint Center.
Many students who are eligible for such benefits, however, are unaware that they even qualify or do not know how to apply. If they are aware of their eligibility, they may feel that the application process, including producing documentation and interviewing, will be too frustrating, and choose not to apply. Students or their family members may have had a negative application experience in the past. Students may be uncomfortable about seeking out means-tested support due to the stigma associated with receiving them, or may also experience social or cultural barriers to receiving assistance. Colleges are working to overcome each of these challenges to ease access to benefits for low-income students.
Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland has partnered with the Ohio Benefit Bank, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and the Cleveland Food Bank to provide assistance to students with the public benefit eligibility and application process. The college houses benefits access services in its Student Financial Aid & Scholarships (SFAS) department and uses peer financial coaches, who are work-study students, to provide information, screening, and application assistance for a range of public benefits. It frames public benefits as another form of financial aid.
In order to reach potentially eligible students, Cuyahoga flags the records of students most likely to be eligible for benefits—those who fall within a targeted cohort of independent students with an Expected Family Contribution of $0-3000 who answer “no” to whether they receive public benefits on the FAFSA. By placing a red flag on the targeted students’ records during the enrollment/registration period, students are alerted to the possibility that they might qualify for public benefits and are required to contact the SFAS/Project Go! Benefits Access office. The student completes a pre-screening survey that helps staff identify who may be eligible for benefits. The peer coaches follow up and provide additional screening and application support. The college also engages in outreach to the broader student body. Counselors, classroom faculty, and other staff provide referrals too. For more information see Cuyahoga’s website.
Over the course of the three-year BACC project, research showed that integrating benefits access activities into community colleges is possible and effective. It requires a great deal of work through the planning and implementation phases, but the payoff in increased retention within semesters and between terms, and increased connection of students to more resources to overcome unmet financial need, illustrate its worth.