Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations. B. Partnerships with Community Colleges


Partnering with community colleges may be one way to increase awareness about benefits among students and address unmet financial need. Single Stop is designed to connect low-income individuals and families with government funds and services. It aims to provide more holistic services to clients in locations they already visit for assistance. It began in New York City at a jail, as well as One-Stop centers, food pantries, and other CBOs. As part of an effort to meet their mission of replication, scale, and impact, Single Stop USA created a new strategic plan to focus on expanding nationally to community college sites. By establishing sites at community colleges, it hopes to link students struggling to stay in school to public benefits and supports so they can graduate and reap the rewards of higher education.

Single Stop USA employs a comprehensive evaluation of potential partners and works closely with the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) to identify new community college partners. ACCT provides strategic advice and counsel to Single Stop USA as it works to identify strong visionary leaders and institutions in need. Once a new site is confirmed, Single Stop USA enters into a contract with the school, which states that, with funding from the former, it will hire at least one full-time coordinator to run the program (ideally, Single Stop USA would like at least two dedicated staff members at each site). Single Stop USA then contracts directly with a financial counselor, a legal provider, and a tax assistance provider in the area to bring those services to the campus. Coordinators are immediately encouraged to develop relationships with other organizations on the ground, including the local human services agencies.

Other entities have also recognized the potential of integrating benefits access efforts into the community college setting. Recently, a consortium of foundations funded an initiative, managed by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), to help seven colleges design and implement models that assist low-income students in acquiring public benefits. Through this project, institutions may undertake the following types of activities:

  • Developing or expanding a benefits access screening program, including working with state agencies to establish Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) and other agreements to facilitate information sharing, cost sharing, and other partnerships
  • Training college staff and relevant faculty to use benefits access screening software and/or engage in benefits access outreach and screening activities
  • Aligning existing technology that will support increased benefits access for students
  • Providing training and services related to ensuring that staff and faculty conducting benefits screenings are well versed in data systems and public benefits eligibility and how to help students gain access to services
  • Informing the student body within the community through outreach/advertising to make students aware of services and supports to help them complete community college programs
  • Integrating benefits access/benefits screening into the community college system and planning for sustainability of changes that streamline benefits access for students

The Request for Proposal (RFP), which provided funding requirements for the individual community colleges, highlighted the importance of working with local and state agencies around benefit access. The RFP stated, "While community college sites will be the locus of most of the Initiative activity, colleges will need to focus some initiative support at the local and state level because local and/or state benefits and postsecondary policies provide the context within which community colleges operate and create or limit options and opportunities available to colleges under the Initiative. A portion of the planning and implementation grants for each site will be dedicated to state-level activities. At the state level, supported activities may include:

  • State-provided training for community college staff on use of online benefits application systems and changes in state and federal policies
  • Planning for enhancements to online benefits application systems, including additional programs and linkages between benefits access and financial aid calculators and applications, as well as integrating with required state health care exchanges to be implemented by 2014
  • State assistance to solve problems that arise and, as needed, modifications to policy or procedures that fix problems
  • State assistance with identifying strategies for taking benefit access in the community college to scale after the project completes."

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