Benefits navigators offer support to college students struggling to meet basic needs

Public colleges and universities throughout the country are hiring benefits navigators to educate students about available resources and help them access necessities, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. In the last year, Illinois, Oregon, and California have passed laws requiring benefits navigators at every public college in the state, and under California law, campuses must also house a physical basic-needs center.

Navigators help students apply for federal, state, and local aid; provide access to food pantries; connect students to funding for affordable housing or for unexpected or emergency costs; and provide other services that buoy students when they need financial assistance.

Institutions’ approaches to delivering these services vary based on available funding and the size of their student populations. Small schools often use a case-management model, where a single administrator meets students one-on-one to help them on a case-by-case basis with everything from program enrollment to Wi-Fi access to warm bedding. Some universities with larger student populations are implementing peer-to-peer models, in which students trained in case management and other supportive services work with their peers to address their basic-needs concerns and reduce stigmas around asking for help.

Related: Peer programs connect food-insecure college students with SNAP benefits >

Creating pathways to financial assistance

Tracy Jones, a benefits navigator at Oregon Coast Community College, helps students struggling with financial difficulties, often meeting them to provide resources for transportation needs or to be a sounding board for emotional support. However, with a limited budget and staff resources, Jones says she’s constrained in the amount of aid she can provide. “Being in an extremely rural, low-income county, benefits programs are few and far between,” Jones tells The Chronicle.

Related: Georgetown Scholars Program nears $20M goal to permanently fund emergency aid for first-gen and low-income students >

At small colleges without discretionary funding for emergency aid, navigators like Jones are left applying for grants and seeking community resources. “A lot of people don’t even know that we’re here in the community,” Jones tells The Chronicle. “By educating the community partners and the students, I’m hoping to be able to broaden what I can do.”

Engaging the whole campus community

To expand the reach and visibility of available resources, larger public institutions like Oregon State—which switched from a single benefits navigator to a peer-to-peer model—rely on student workers to scale up services and to ease stigmas associated with basic needs assistance. Rise, a national organization that supports student-led advocacy around college costs, financial aid, and basic needs insecurity, has hired and trained a team of peer benefits navigators at universities across the country, many of whom will start their work this fall.

Hunter M. Calvert, one of four student leaders and 16 student benefits navigators at Oregon State’s Basic Needs Center, says that students are more likely to seek help from peers than administrators. “I think students in particular have kind of been taught to maybe not advocate for themselves as strongly in the face of authority,” he explains. “We want to communicate in a way so that students have no shame in coming in and getting care.”

To raise awareness about available resources in the community, the California State system trains faculty and staff to serve as basic-needs ambassadors. Faculty members are encouraged to include information about available financial assistance and on-campus services in their syllabi. “Supporting students’ basic needs is not the work of a unit or an individual,” says Henoc M. Preciado, systemwide manager for the California State system’s Basic Needs Initiative. “It is the work of an entire community.”

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