Report Calls for More Comprehensive Financial Assistance for Low-Income Students

Quick Takeaways:

  • Financial aid that covers living expenses, such as housing and childcare, in addition to tuition and books is needed to better help postsecondary persistence and completion among low-income students
  • Several steps can be taken in reauthorizing the Higher Education Act to better connect students with public benefits, including adding information about applying for benefits to
  • “With college affordability garnering concern from an increasing portion of the country, the time is ripe to re-conceptualize how to structure college student financial support to include assistance with food, health insurance, and child care,” the report’s author writes.

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

Adequate financial aid that covers more than just tuition and books is necessary for low-income and non-traditional students to achieve their postsecondary education goals, according to a recently released report from the Center for Law and Social Policy’s (CLASP) Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success.

The report, authored by CLASP Senior Policy Analyst Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, explores how public, means-tested benefits can assist low-income students to more comprehensively finance higher education, including living expenses like housing, food, and health insurance. The report looks at how programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, and child care assistance can supplement the federal financial aid programs to increase students’ financial stability and help them stay on track to completion.

According to Duke-Benfield, there is “a growing public understanding that student aid alone isn’t enough to help students fund their postsecondary aspirations because some are unable to meet their basic human needs with existing support. … These programs can reduce unmet need by supplementing the patchwork resources students currently use, increasing the financial stability of adults and youth, and help them care for their families.”

The report analyzes the interaction between the federal and state financial aid programs and the public benefits programs and tax credits that low-income students are most likely eligible for, looking at eligibility requirements, how financial aid is treated under each program, and state and federal policy recommendations to improve the relationship between the public programs and financial aid.

The federal financial aid programs included in the report are Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Federal Work-Study (FWS), and Direct Federal Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans. Three tax credits – the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) – were analyzed in the report, as well as several public benefits programs, including:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP);
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF);
  • Child-care subsidies;
  • Subsidized health insurance, such as Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Advance Premium Tax Credits (APTC);
  • Rental housing assistance;
  • Unemployment Insurance (UI).

According to Duke-Benfield, low-income students face three significant challenges to accessing public benefits they are entitled to, including the fact that many of these benefits programs are not designed for students. She notes that this challenge “illustrat[es] the misalignment between these programs and our nation’s college completion goals.” An additional challenge is that many of these programs are “financially stretched,” especially as sequestration has taken its toll on domestic discretionary spending, she writes. The final challenge is a resistance on the part of the public to allow college students access to public benefits, making it difficult to advocate for increased access for low-income students.

However, “[w]ith college affordability garnering concern from an increasing portion of the country, the time is ripe to re-conceptualize how to structure college student financial support to include assistance with food, health insurance, and child care,” Duke-Benfield writes.

The report included some policy recommendations for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) related to ways institutions can better connect students with comprehensive financial supports to help them complete their education. First, federally funded grant dollars should be used to help students apply for benefits, including increasing the minimum grants and funding for student support services and direct new funding towards connecting students to comprehensive financial aid. The connection between low-income students and public benefits and tax credits should also be included in the recommended activities under the federal TRIO programs. Connecting students to comprehensive financial supports and public benefits should also be added to the authorized activities for Title III and V receiving institutions, and the connection should be included as a grant-eligible activity to improve higher education opportunities in the Fund for the Improvement in Postsecondary Education.

Second, the impact of benefits receipt on college persistence and completion rates should be further tested through the Experimental Sites Initiative. Third, more low-income students should be educated about the availability of public benefits, including posting information about how to apply for public benefits to the portal. The Department of Education (ED) should also include information about public benefits in its financial aid outreach efforts and FAFSA presentations at secondary schools.

Finally, the HEA should include a mandate to form an interdepartmental working group that includes representatives of the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation. The focus of the working group should be on streamlining public benefits policies with the aim of financially supporting postsecondary attendance and success for low-income students.

“Affording and completing college is tough enough for any student. But for low-income students, and particularly those who are juggling multiple responsibilities at school and home, postsecondary education is especially challenging,” Duke-Benfield writes. “That’s why students – and the institutions they attend – need to think expansively about how to weave together the financial supports available to meet the many costs of attending and completing college.”


Publication Date: 12/22/2015

Denise D | 12/22/2015 12:13:16 PM

The problem is that some states do not recognize the pursuit of a degree, and especially a graduate degree, as a reason for housing or food assistance. The states expect an able-bodied person to find and hold a job, and only after that income is considered would the person be eligible for public assistance.

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