How to connect more students with crucial public benefits

A college education is the most reliable pathway to economic mobility, but completing a four-year degree can be difficult for students facing food, housing, and other basic needs insecurity. Colleges can help reduce these obstacles by using data from students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) not only to calculate financial aid but also to identify students most at risk of basic needs insecurity and connect them with other state and federal assistance programs, says a new policy brief by Higher Learning Advocates (HLA) and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

Federal and state financial aid may not be enough to help some students to cover their basic needs, the brief states. Although the Pell Grant received its largest increase in decades, heightening the maximum award to $7,395 for the 2023-24 award year, it still doesn’t cover average tuition and fees of public and private non-profit colleges. Providing greater access to federal benefits—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), broadband internet assistance, and tax credits—can help college students struggling to cover the cost of food, housing, and other necessities. Spreading awareness is key: almost two million students at risk for food insecurity were potentially eligible for SNAP but said they did not receive benefits in 2016, leaving around $3 billion in unused benefits..

“Millions of college students are eligible for such benefits, however, they are unaware of their eligibility or do not know how to apply,” the brief says. 

Related: A call to connect more college students with federal food assistance program


Supporting the most vulnerable students

In 2022, the Department of Education sent a guidance encouraging higher education institutions to inform students about their potential eligibility for government assistance, prompting the HLA and NASFAA to later research if, and how, institutions were alerting students about federal benefits programs. In March 2023, NASFAA sent an electronic survey to its member higher education institutions; 359 colleges responded. The data were evaluated using quantitative and qualitative methods.

Just over a quarter (27%) of respondents said they were alerting students directly about any federal benefit programs they might be eligible for, with or without using FAFSA data, and an additional 18% planned to reach out to these students in the future. However, 43% of colleges said they did not reach out directly to students and had no plans to do so. The most popular programs for targeted outreach using FAFSA data were SNAP and the Affordable Connectivity Program, which focuses on access to broadband services and is expected to wind down this spring.

Of the colleges that didn’t directly reach out to students about their benefits, over half reported their institution communicates more broadly about benefits by posting general information about government assistance programs in print publications, on institutional websites, via flyers on campus, or through non-targeted emails to all students. 

Some states, including California, require colleges to use FAFSA data to identify students who meet the income requirements of benefits programs, but other states are hesitant to contact students more directly about government assistance eligibility, Inside Higher Ed reports. Of colleges that do not directly contact students about their potential eligibility for government assistance programs, the vast majority (72%) say they are hamstrung by understaffing and other resource constraints at the financial aid office. 

The effort for direct outreach, however, is worth the investment, researchers say. “If you invest in connections up front, then you don’t have to go back and re-enroll those students after they drop out,” Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, HLA managing director of policy and research, tells Inside Higher Ed

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