Spotlight Exclusives

The Role of Community Colleges in Connecting Low-Income Students to Needed Benefits

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For many in America, community colleges represent an important chance for upward mobility. Whether students are studying to gain a degree, transfer to a university, or improve a particular job skill, they are counting on community colleges to make good on the promise of transforming their lives through education. But day-to-day policies and operations at community colleges often fail to address one of the key barriers to academic achievementpoverty.

Community colleges can play a unique role in impacting low-income students. The number of community college students from low-income families has increased steadily over the last two decades. One opportunity for community colleges to help this growing low-income population achieve educational goals is found outside the classroom: connecting students to public benefits. In many cases, benefits that would make a difference in low-income students۪ lives and in their ability to pursue their education go unclaimed. Juggling multiple demands, students often fail to connect to the proper agencies or navigate bureaucratic processes to acquire the benefits to which they are entitled.

Community colleges are in a position to facilitate these much-needed connections and are beginning to do so. My institution, Skyline College, is one of six community colleges across the U.S. participating in the implementation phase of the Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) project, a three-year initiative running through 2014 that is investigating innovative ways to connect low-income students to public benefits. Skyline College, located outside San Francisco, has experience in this work, having already partnered with United Way of the Bay Area to open a SparkPoint Center where participants are supported with public benefits screening and application, assistance in applying for scholarships, financial literacy training, income supports, and educational programs. What may be a minor economic challenge or inconvenience to higher-income people can actually have such a cascading impact on low-income students that they are unable to continue their studies. The loss of a pair of prescription eyeglasses or a broken thermostat in the car can result in a student failing to complete coursework or reach class on time, falling behind and in turn altogether dropping out of school.

Institutions participating in BACC are forging unique partnerships for the benefit of students. For example, at Skyline College we collaborate with Second Harvest Food Bank to host a small food pantry on the campus so students who need emergency food may access it, and we have collaborated with the Department of Human Services and had our staff trained to help students navigate the SNAP (formerly food stamps) process. We have also co-located a component of the California Employment Development Department office so community members and students may more easily access unemployment benefits and employment services. Another BACC participant, Pennsylvania۪s Northampton Community College, connects students to the state۪s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Weatherization Assistance Program, both of which help low-income individuals afford high utility costs.
There was a time when many states recognized the importance of having an educated citizenry. California۪s original Master Plan for Higher Education adopted in 1960, for example, recognized education as a means toward upward mobility and ensured that higher education would not be reserved only for the elite. Given the impact of recent state policies and fiscal constraints, this vision for accessible higher education is threatened. Programs and services that were created to serve students who are economically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented in higher education are being systematically de-constructed through funding and de-categorization policies. For the first time in California history, the public narrative has shifted from open access to rationing of higher education. Our state۪s Student Success Act of 2012 puts in place policies of sorting, prioritizing, and bumping students out of the community college system in the name of accountability and efficiency. This bill that was passed into law last year prioritizes first-time community college students, current students who adhere to an academic plan, and those transferring to a four-year institution over those taking longer to earn a credential. The disproportionate impact of the de-facto retreat from the Master Plan on Higher Education will be on low-income students who are more likely to attend community college in order to augment job skills or to start and stop their college careers in response to competing financial priorities.

Skyline College and the other community colleges participating in BACC are working hard to ensure that higher education does not sacrifice open access for narrowly defined academic achievement, especially for low-income students. The project has benefited from more integrated college services and collaboration and cross-training between government agencies.

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. As more and more low-income students turn to community colleges to help them pursue their dreams and support their families, these institutions and their students will only succeed by addressing a major obstacle to student advancementpoverty.

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Dr. Regina Stroud is the president of Skyline College.

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