Easing Access to Public Benefits

A new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy recommends supplementing financial aid with other government assistance programs to help low-income students succeed in college.

December 16, 2015

Even with financial aid or low tuition costs, many low-income students struggle to cover the cost of attending college.

Tuition may not be a concern, especially for those at community colleges, but the costs of books, housing and even food, child care or health care can become difficult to sustain while attending classes and holding down part-time or full-time jobs. More than 90 percent of independent, full-time community college students with incomes less than about $28,000 a year had financial need that was not met by financial aid or grants in 2011-2012, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of low-income people.

A new report from CLASP argues that existing federal and state social assistance programs could help supplement student aid for many more low-income students, but barriers such as conflicting requirements and lack of coordination among the programs stand in the way. The report makes a series of suggestions for how institutions, governments and others could help more low-income students take advantage of housing, food, health, child care and other benefits that could help keep them in college.

The goal ultimately is for students to work less, enroll in full-time classes and not face the financial pressures that force them to drop credits or drop out of college, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, the author of the report and a senior policy analyst at CLASP's Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success.

"All of these benefits are temporary support," she said. "We need to think of them as a short-term investment for a long-term gain."

The report details that in a 2009 survey of young adults, 71 percent said they left college because they had to "go to work and make money."

Many of the public benefits that are available to students require to them to often work 20 or more hours. But a study released by Georgetown University found that students who work more than 15 hours a week suffer academically.

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

Katharine Broton, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-author of a recent study examining student homelessness, said understanding the requirements and details of the various public assistance programs can be daunting for qualified, low-income students.

"The social safety net is challenging to navigate for almost anyone, let alone someone [who is] going to school full-time, working one or two jobs, or has dependent children and other things going on in their life," she said. "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."

That homelessness study, which was released by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, found that 13 percent of community college students experienced some form of homelessness and more than half experienced some level of food insecurity. The study was based on web surveys sent to 10 community colleges across the country, but had a response rate of 9 percent, or 4,312 students.

"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.

Some institutions are already doing some of this on their own, Duke-Benfield said. CLASP and the American Association of Community Colleges are managing the Benefits Access for College Completion multiyear initiative to connect low-income students with easy access to public benefits.

The report highlights the BACC initiative at Ohio's Cuyahoga Community College, where students can apply for public benefits with staff on campus and "peer financial coaches" are available to guide students through applying for assistance.

But the report also points out challenges that make it difficult to connect public benefits and financial aid programs. For example, many of the government assistance programs aren't designed for students, and colleges aren't aware of how those programs can help their students.

Many of the programs are also financially strapped, so much so that there may be long waiting lists, as is the case for public housing and many state child care programs. Finally, there can be a political backlash to states or the federal government increasing the number of people receiving public benefits.

Duke-Benfield said two things need to happen to make progress on the issue.

"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 said. "Then at the federal and state level we need to decide that we're truly committed to equity 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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