Spotlight Exclusives

The Hidden Value of Access to Benefits Programs

commentary commentary, posted on

It is conventional wisdom that community colleges provide opportunities for low-income Americans to access a postsecondary education. No other higher education institutions are as flexible and responsive to the needs of individuals who are low-income and often first-generation college students. Programs that allow these students to access public benefits are a natural fit for the evolving community college mission to serve low-income students. But these benefit access programs are also critical to the well-being of community colleges themselves.  

There is widespread agreement that the formula for community college finance is broken. Funding streams have shifted, and community colleges now rely heavily on student tuition as a source of revenue. With the increased financial burden on students, benefit access programs are key to allowing our colleges to recruit and retain students, the most fundamental ingredient for both our students۪ and our institutions۪ success.

The conventional financial formula of a community college divides most support into three equal categoriesone-third from tuition, one-third from state appropriations, and one-third from some local support, normally through property taxes. The stark reality we face is far from this idealized goal.

The financial situation faced by Macomb Community College is representative of the problem nationwide. In the last decade, our college has received less than 20 percent of its revenue from the state and significantly less from local support. Student tuition has been the most important source of revenue for the institution, composing 41 percent of the college۪s revenue. This increased dependence on tuition and therefore enrollment for our revenue has significant consequences for the future of our institutions and for community college students.

At the same time, another important trend is challenging our existing model for attracting students. Until recently, it had been relatively easy to drive up enrollment at community colleges. Our institutions are flexible and open to adults with few entry requirements. But what is interesting is that many four-year institutions are now utilizing the same techniques. When it comes to recruiting low-income and first-generation college students, community colleges face strong competition.

Community colleges need to find a way to better recruit and attract low-income students who are considering attending other postsecondary institutions. But 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. They allow us to offer a learning environment that is distinguished from other institutions, and they provide students with additional tools for academic success.  

Community college students come from many walks of life, but a significant proportion of students come from first-generation families where college education may not have been considered a likely option. These are precisely the students who could take advantage of benefits access programs. These programs can aid students who are unsure whether they can even attend college, providing them with the material support to continue onward toward completion of a degree.

As part of our access to benefits strategy, we run a program entitled Dreamkeepers which provides short-term, non-academic financial aid to low-income students who are faced with issues such as utility shut-offs, car repairs, or lack of child care. The average grant for these activities is less than $400, but because the assistance is immediate and targeted, it has had a dramatic impact on student retention. Dreamkeepers has helped encouraged retention among 80 percent of our students.

These data demonstrate that access to benefits initiatives both fulfill the community college mission to help first-generation and low-income students, and are important tools in helping to secure tuition revenue that will keep community colleges strong, securing quality education for generations of students to come.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here

Dr. Jim Jacobs is the president of Macomb Community College.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

ff you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives