What Can Community Colleges do to Help Students Afford Higher Education?

Blog Post
June 1, 2022

It’s no secret that the full cost of college is skyrocketing. While college is a worthwhile investment, millions of Americans have amassed unsustainable student debt to access higher education, a concerning reality that is exacerbating economic and racial inequality. Paradoxically, as the full cost of college – which includes students’ living costs such as housing, food, and transportation – has increased, so have the economic benefits of earning a degree. As expensive as college has become, it’s critically important to ensure all people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, can access and afford higher education to improve their economic security and opportunity. However, recent research found that only 13 percent of students from the poorest families earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 64 percent of students from wealthy families. This is particularly alarming given enrollment declines across higher education, particularly at community colleges, which are institutions that serve a significant number of students with low incomes. Put together, this demonstrates the need to make college more accessible and affordable.

Higher education has become prohibitively expensive for millions of Americans in large part due to rising living costs that students must pay while attending college. These costs beyond tuition - which include students’ basic needs - represent the expenses students pay to live while attending college. These non-tuition costs are often far more than tuition or the maximum Pell Grant Award [see Figure 1], a reality that necessitates federal policymakers advancing solutions that can lower housing, food, transportation, and childcare costs for college students. But in the absence of federal policy action, colleges can and should help students access resources that can effectively lower the cost burden to live while attending college.

Benefit Navigators: An Institutional Approach to Lowering Student Spending on Living Expenses

It’s particularly important for community colleges to work to address students’ living costs given community colleges serve a significant number of adult students and students with low incomes. While basic needs insecurity creates immense challenges for community college students nationwide, some community colleges – particularly those in states that have allocated funding to reduce basic needs insecurity – are already leading the way.

Southwestern Oregon Community College and Mt. Hood Community College are two such schools. In 2021, Oregon passed new legislation that requires each community college and public university within the state to hire benefits navigators. Benefits navigators are trained professionals that help students access federal, state, and local public benefits programs, such as SNAP, housing assistance, and other resources that help address students’ basic needs. By allocating nearly $5 million to community colleges and public universities to hire benefits navigators, Oregon created an institutionalized approach to ensuring there are professional staff members at each college and university across the state to connect students to the benefits they qualify for. As a result, Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, Oregon, and Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, now have full-time staff members working to connect students to sources of public funding that can help them better afford food, housing, transportation, and even childcare. Lindsey Bellefeuille, the benefits navigator for Southwestern Oregon Community College, explained the importance of her work by sharing:

“I was a first-generation college student…(and) there are great programs for students like me who qualify, but everyone could benefit from this information. Helping people sign up for benefits is essential (because) the system in Oregon was just not made for people who need benefits. The (Oregon Department of Human Services) doesn’t communicate in a way that’s accessible for working people…It’s very helpful to have someone just be able to explain things (in a way that makes sense to students).”

Lessons from Oregon: A promising Start but More Action is Needed

While Oregon’s recent legislation offers a promising start to ensuring all colleges statewide have benefits navigators, additional action is needed to ensure navigators are effective. Navigators have a limited amount of resources that are constrained by state policy. Despite meaningful successes connecting students to SNAP and other benefit programs, Bellefeuille explained how she feels limited in her role:

“There’s not much funding for this position that we can use for student needs. I thought we could give students grocery cards but that use isn't currently allowed by HECC (the Higher Education Coordinating Committee of Oregon). My position is funded because of a house bill, and there is some money for institutions to operationalize this, but there isn’t money that we can just transfer to students…What we can use the funds for is always changing, and it’s always possible in a year we could use these funds for student supports, but we can’t now.”

The success of benefits navigators also depends on the culture of the college in which they operate, and the relative commitment a college has to fostering an inclusive environment that serves all students equitably. At Southwestern Oregon Community College, Bellefeuille believes that:

“Yes, people at the college want to help. But there’s a lack of understanding about what’s actually helpful, and there’s stigma everywhere, so there’s stigma here… I wish that…we had more …trainings about basic needs and trauma informed care. That’s the very foundation of how we should do work in this institution.”

This brings up an important consideration regarding the potential impact of benefits navigators: colleges need to systematically commit to helping students afford their basic needs in order to maximize the impact of benefits navigators. To do this effectively, colleges may need additional resources to offer additional resources to students or develop the systems and trainings necessary to ensure faculty and staff understand their role in helping students navigate challenging economic and life circumstances.

Colleges and States Can Act Now Without Waiting for Federal Policy Change

To maximize the effectiveness of benefits navigators, I have four recommendations based on the first year of implementation of Oregon’s benefits navigators’ legislation:

Colleges Should Require Student Basic Needs Training for All Faculty and Staff

To help ensure there is a campus-wide culture such that all faculty and staff understand, and support, their role in addressing students’ basic needs, colleges should require student basic needs training for all faculty and staff. These trainings could be designed and facilitated in conjunction with benefits navigators and may require additional state funding.

Colleges Should Review Institutional Policies Relating to Student Basic Needs & Financial Aid to Ensure they are Student Centric

While hiring benefits navigators can help connect students to public benefits programs, colleges should review their internal policies on financial aid and basic needs to ensure they are not creating additional economic barriers for students. An internal review of relevant institutional policies can also help develop a campus culture centered around a deep understanding of the importance of student basic needs insecurity.

States Should Provide Additional Funding to Colleges to Hire & Adequately Support Benefits Navigators

The first year of Oregon’s benefits navigators program demonstrates the importance of allocating enough funding to colleges to not only hire benefits navigators but to ensure that navigators have adequate resources to meet the needs of all students across their campus. Colleges need to have enough navigators to manage all of their students’ needs and require additional funding to adequately institutionalize their commitment to addressing student basic needs insecurity.

States Should Provide Flexible Funding to Allow Colleges to Provide Emergency Aid to Students Who Can’t Access Public Benefits

States should also ensure they provide colleges with flexible funding so that benefits navigators can provide students with immediate financial needs with emergency aid like grocery gift cards. Not all students will be able to access public benefits in emergencies, and states should allow benefits navigators the ability to allocate funds directly to students facing pressing economic circumstances. In doing so, states can maximize the impact benefits navigators can have on students most in need of economic support. States can learn from the restrictive use of funds from Oregon’s benefits navigators program to inform a more flexible approach that ensures all colleges can spend state funding on ways that reduce student basic needs insecurity.

If colleges and states can implement these four recommendations, they can help students afford their basic needs and effectively lower the full cost of college, without waiting for federal policy action.

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