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Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) was a $4.8 million, three-year initiative to increase college completion rates by improving students’ access to a range of public benefits to reduce financial barriers to college completion. Seven participating community and technical colleges developed practices to 1) systematically integrate benefits access into college processes and into existing college operations, and 2) strengthen partnerships with local and state human services agencies to better provide these integrated services.
Public benefits programs included Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the child care and transportation benefits associated with these public benefit programs. Although BACC colleges took different approaches to providing benefits, all BACC colleges addressed five core areas of work: outreach, pre-screening, screening, application, and follow-up.
The efforts of participating community colleges ranged from providing students with information about benefits to screening them for program eligibility, assisting them with benefits enrollment by filling out applications and gathering documentation, and identifying policies to better serve students who are eligible for benefits but not enrolled. Specific strategies included the following:
Approximately 2,200 students were served through the BACC initiative and applied for public benefits. More than 1,300 of the students who applied received public benefits (i.e., SNAP, TANF, and/or child care). Students who received public benefits enrolled in more academic terms, on average, during the BACC demonstration, than students in the control group.1 Students who received two or more public benefits were more likely to have better outcomes than students who received only one public benefit, and better than similar students who received no public benefits.2
An evaluation of BACC’s impact on student progression and completion is available online.
Through this initiative, community colleges designed and integrated benefits-access programs into existing operations. They also 1) identified college resources and other public funding sources that might be used to develop and sustain these programs and 2) learned which models yielded the best outcomes for students.
Northampton Community College (NCC) was one of the institutions that participated in BACC. Located in Bethlehem, Pa., NCC has a history of offering limited support to students who receive public benefits. It also uses some state funds to support students who are TANF recipients. NCC’s BACC program was intended to expand and sustain its services to support low-income students.
The first cohort of NCC’s BACC program included low-income students at or below 160 percent of the federal poverty level who were independent students with dependents, had earned at least 15 credits, and had a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0.3 The program also targeted dislocated workers, students who enrolled in non-credit coursework, and those who had not completed a FAFSA. NCC expanded to a second cohort of students, including those who were independent students with dependents, who were Pell-eligible, and who had not yet registered for classes.4
NCC offered benefits-access screening and application assistance through several mechanisms across the college. NCC’s BACC staff, in cooperation with admissions and advising staff, developed a College Readiness Assessment tool to help identify the services that students needed most. They followed up to determine whether students had received benefits or requests from the state Department of Human Services; and contacted the county assistance office if they believed a student’s benefits had been wrongly denied, limited, or decreased.5
The graphic on the following page represents the student flowchart for NCC’s enhanced financial aid system, with benefits access embedded. It shows how students engage in the benefits-screening process and traces the route that students take to apply for benefits.
Learn more about the processes BACC colleges developed to ensure students’ information and access to public benefits screening.
In 2015, Seminole State College of Florida and Heart of Florida United Way joined Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnership for Attainment and launched Destination Graduation, a pilot program to help low-income, first-generation, and veteran students obtain the resources they need to stay in school. The program is administered through the Central Florida College Access Network, and works with Seminole State to identify students at risk of dropping out for non-academic reasons.
Leveraging United Way’s 2-1-1 Information & Assistance Helpline, a specialist located at Seminole State identifies eligible students and matches them with the most effective campus or community resources. This includes wraparound services such as housing, food pantries, public benefits, child care, and access to health care. The program also established an emergency fund for low-income students and an emergency fund for veterans. Students can obtain services directly on campus or by dialing 2-1-1.
Students may be referred to the program through counselors, advisors, faculty or student referrals, and targeted messaging in e-blasts and student message center. Nearly 300 students contacted 2-1-1 in the first year of the program. The average amount of support provided to address a student’s financial crisis is approximately $750. Of the students who received emergency funds, 100 percent stayed enrolled in their current term, and 85 percent could continue to the next semester.
Turi Christensen, a Career Program Advisor at Seminole State, says: “As an advisor who sees many students in unique situations, it is a relief to me to have Destination Graduation as a resource to which I can refer my students. Several of my students have recently faced a financial challenge that would have prevented them from continuing their education if it had not been for the assistance that United Way provided. Having a specialist and case manager on campus has been a real blessing so that students have someone they can visit face to face to work out the challenges to their success. It is a joy to see the students able to continue their educational journeys overcoming challenging obstacles with the help of Destination Graduation.”
The Working Students Success Network (WSSN) supported 19 community colleges in four states (Arkansas, California, Virginia, and Washington) as they created pathways to provide integrated services that prepare low-income students for jobs with family sustaining wages. WSSN colleges focused on effectively bundling and sequencing both low- and high-touch services to efficiently match the needs, accessibility, and schedules of students.
Colleges have placed significant emphasis on developing the best ways to bundle WSSN services for students. Some colleges have gone the low-touch route, while others have been able to respond more directly to individual student needs. The WSSN initiative has sought to break down “service silos,” often by using a college “hub” that offers students integrated academic and non-academic services, including:
Bundling low-touch services for students is done primarily through orientations, in-take processes, and student success courses. Many of these “initial bundles” have been made mandatory for the student populations that colleges are targeting. The idea is to ensure that students see services as a normal part of their college-going experience; this makes students more apt to use ongoing, high-touch services.
Two crucial elements of effective bundling are to centralize services and to be “intentional” about service delivery. Colleges report that students who qualify for WSSN-related services often qualify for a wide range of other services as well. But if those services are housed in different places or divisions of the college, the institution must be proactive and specific in directing students to all services from which they may benefit.
Learn more about WSSN.
In addition to providing a suite of financial stability supports to better serve low-income students, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, a comprehensive community college in Green Bay, also works to integrate these supports into the college’s broader efforts to institute guided pathways reforms.
Northeast Wisconsin participates in the Pathways Project, a national initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges. Along with 29 other colleges in 17 states, the college is working to transform and evolve its approach to (1) establishing clear programs of study that are transparent to students, (2) onboarding students into those programs more efficiently, (3) monitoring students’ progress and intervening in targeted and customized ways to support completion, and (4) ensuring that students are demonstrating program and institutional learning outcomes vital to their transfer or workforce transitions. These types of supports certainly help all students, but this support is especially useful to low-income students.
Notable examples of Northeast Wisconsin’s financial stability approaches include the following:
These are just some of the supports provided by the college. College President Jeffrey Rafn set the tone for the bigger picture by stating: “Every single student has value, and we have a responsibility to help them get through our college. They may have made poor decisions in the past, but they made at least one decision that was good – to come here. And, that’s all that matters. If they don’t get through here, their chances to get a family-sustaining wage go down significantly. We call all students who leave, and cost and finances are at the top of the list of their reasons for leaving. We need to do what we can to keep the students here and help them to complete. We need to do it from a moral standpoint and as a way to support our community.”
When asked how other colleges can expand their range of student financial stability services, Vice President Lori Suddick states: “If I were advising another college, I would tell them first that leaders have to lead this. They have to bring visibility to the great things that are happening in small silos to small numbers of students. Bringing visibility to that work and connecting it to other efforts helps create energy and momentum around it. It’s feel-good work for people, and they want to be a part of it. Step by step, they get more involved and become leaders, and we give them the latitude and autonomy to design. For our college, all of this came from practitioners operating in the right environment and nurturing the great ideas.”