After being laid off from her job in 2005, Sarah Young waited for hours at a local health and family services agency, where she planned to apply for public benefits. Young said she was treated rudely and then turned away. She returned to the same agency the next day and was greeted by a woman who slid a card across her desk. It read: Gateway Community and Technical College. At first, Young wasn’t interested, but two weeks later she enrolled at the Kentucky institution.
That day changed her life, she says.
Now, as the success coach of a benefits access project that Gateway is participating in, Young tells her story to students at her alma mater, offering them information about their income support options. She knows that when low-income students are raising children, are homeless, or do not know where their next meal is coming from, academic work is often the last thing they can focus on. And a little bit of help can go a long way.
“Our motto is short-term assistance for long-term success,” Young said. “I utilized benefits. It was short–term. You can gain self-sufficiency.”
Gateway is one of seven community colleges chosen to pilot the Benefits Access for College Completion program, which aims to point community college students toward financial resources. The three-year, $4.84 million initiative started last year and is funded by the Ford, Kresge and Lumina Foundations as well as 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.
Along with Gateway, the participating colleges are Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, LaGuardia Community College in New York, Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, Skyline College in California, and Lake Michigan College and Macomb Community College, both of which are in Michigan.
An aim for the project is to determine if this kind of assistance will decrease dropout rates at community colleges. More than 70 percent of students who drop out of community colleges cite financial burdens and work obligations as their main reasons, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy and the director of the Benefits Access for College Completion program. The average community college student had more than $6,000 in unmet financial need during the 2011-2012 school year, Duke-Benfield said.
While there has been much discussion about the student loan crisis, the benefits access program is about “broadening the conversation about financial aid,” since there are many other costs, besides tuition, that can stand between students and their education, Duke-Benfield said. The participating community colleges are linking students with groceries, rent assistance and childcare assistance, as well as making them aware of benefits they may not have known they were eligible for, such as Medicaid and food stamps.
In order for it to outlast its three-year grant, the benefits access program is designed to take a sustainable approach to helping students, to create a “culture of longevity,” Duke-Benfield said.
Each community college created individualized plans for how it would put that culture into place.
At Gateway, that means making faculty responsible for getting the word out during their classes about services available on campus, as well as encouraging them to identify students who may be in need. In addition, on Gateway's placement exams, there are now questions about financial need. Students who may be eligible for assistance are then sought out by faculty. At Northampton, there are notes on bathroom stalls about where students can get food if they run out at the end of the month. This all helps students get information about benefits more easily, without necessarily having to seek it out, Duke-Benfield said.
With its BACC grant, Cuyahoga Community College teamed up with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the Ohio Benefit Bank and the Cleveland Food Bank to implement Project Go!
The program utilizes staff and social work interns from four-year institutions to provide screening and application assistance for public benefits to students. Through surveys and focus groups, the college found that students are often hesitant to go to various agencies to seek financial assistance, said Cuyahoga’s vice president for student affairs, Sandy Robinson.
The benefits of one Cuyahoga student, Manuel Rodríguez, were cut off this year; then, a friend told him about Project Go! He made an appointment with the assistance center on campus and was able to get his benefits reinstated. If assistance had not been available on campus, Rodríguez said, “I don’t think I would have done anything.”
“I’m a full-time student and a lot of the time I don’t have the time to do get it done, a lot of the time they ask for too much information,” he said. “It’s just too much.”
The colleges that participate in BACC are still looking for new ways to provide information and connect students to financial resources. The Center for Law and Social Policy sponsored a webinar last Wednesday in conjunction with the benefits access program, which focused on the new health care coverage options that will be available under the Affordable Care Act and how community colleges can make uninsured students aware of the options.
According to a recent study on college completion, 69 percent of students who did not graduate said that having health insurance would have helped them “a lot” in getting a degree, Duke-Benfield said during the webinar. And more than 70 percent of uninsured young people do not know the new options available to them.
The conversation was run by representatives from Enroll America and Young Invincibles, two organizations raising awareness about the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act.
The webinar’s presenters discussed students’ potential health care options, such as dependent coverage, expanded eligibility for Medicaid and tax credits.
The presenters also discussed the best ways to “translate” health care information to students who may never have been insured before.
Sasha Strother, director of the benefits access program at Cuyahoga, said that many of the students she talks to need health care.
“A lot of them are single parents, a lot of them are coming to school for the first time, a lot of them are not working,” Strother said. “They are looking for health care. But unfortunately don’t know how to get it.”