Media Coverage: Carroll Community College students get help in unlocking federal aid for groceries and other necessities

By: Thomas Goodwin Smith

Originally published in The Carroll County Times and Baltimore Sun on February 27, 2023.

Carroll Community College students will have an easier time accessing free funds for groceries and other necessities thanks to a new partnership between the college and Benefits Data Trust, a national nonprofit organization.

Benefits Data Trust is helping the college to use student data the college collects to identify those most likely to be eligible for untapped support. About 820 students received texts and emails within the last month notifying them that they may be eligible for about $100 per month to help defray grocery costs. The organization Share our Strength, which works to address hunger-related issues, helped provide data analysis funding.

This type of assistance will allow students to spend less time worrying about expenses and more time in classes, said Kristie Crumley, the college’s associate provost of student affairs and marketing.

“We truly believe that students can better focus on their education, focus on their social development and focus on their future when their basic needs are met,” Crumley said, “but somebody who is hungry or is missing some basic needs — whether it’s child care or health care or any of those things — can’t concentrate on what they’re here to do.”

The college’s partnership with BDT is a pilot program geared toward helping students unlock Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Crumley said, although students identified as SNAP-eligible are likely also eligible for other assistance.

Higher education students are a population with high eligibility for untapped aid, said Neeta Sonalkar, BDT’s director of higher education. Nearly 2 million American students are eligible for SNAP benefits they are not receiving.

The Benefits Data Trust provides the college with guidance on best practices for creating lists and analyzing data in this pilot program designed around the needs of community colleges, Sonalkar said. The organization does not look at students’ data, Sonalkar said, and data use is within the confines of the Federal Education Rights Privacy Act.

Data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is especially useful, Crumley said, and legal for institutions to use for legitimate purposes, such as identifying students eligible to receive additional resources.

“BDT really helps to streamline access to benefits and make that process easier for families who have need,” Sonalkar said. “We’re really excited about this emerging work with higher education institutions and we’re really grateful to the Maryland community colleges for working with us on that.”

The program is also being used at Chesapeake College in Queen Anne’s County, the College of Southern Maryland and Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury.

The impact of SNAP benefits on academic performance has been well documented, Sonalkar said. Test scores for students receiving SNAP decline at the end of the month as benefits run out, according to studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the American Educational Research Journal.

Crumley said she hopes raising awareness through college communications will lend legitimacy to Benefits Data Trust in the minds of students who can benefit most.

“They’re the experts, they can figure out if you could be eligible for more,” Crumley said. “Our students are talking to someone specifically in Maryland who knows Carroll County and knows what benefits students who live here are eligible for.”

Lack of eligibility awareness and confusing application processes are among the barriers that the Benefits Data Trust is working to address, Sonalkar said.

“Primarily, students don’t think they’re eligible for benefits,” Sonalkar said. “There has been some really misleading messaging around SNAP in particular — that college students are not eligible to apply for SNAP — which is simply not true.”

During the pandemic, SNAP benefits were extended to students who were eligible for work study and those with no expected family contribution, but eligibility for those students will end on June 10. Sonalkar said the looming discontinuation of benefits for those groups makes identifying student benefit eligibility especially important.

Inflation and the increasing cost of groceries have also put college students in greater need of support, Carroll Community communications officer Lisa Slappy said.

“The reason we are doing this is because helping students afford the cost of attending college — which is not just tuition — can also help them stay enrolled and persist through to graduation,” Sonalkar said, “and that just make them more ready for the workforce.”

Federal Pell Grant recipients could be eligible for benefits totaling twice what they are receiving from Pell, including automatic eligibility for up to $45 per month toward internet bills. Rural communities in need of high-speed internet access and student parents in need of reliable child care are among the populations most likely to be eligible for untapped assistance, Sonalkar said.

“People who are eligible for one benefit are likely eligible for another benefit,” Sonalkar said, “but the eligibility requirements and the process for applying for them and qualifying for them can seem very different and complicated.”

The next phase of the partnership between Carroll Community College and the Benefits Data Trust could focus on helping rural communities unlock internet access benefits, Crumley said.

“The digital divide is brutal if you don’t have access to internet,” Crumley said. “There are homes in Carroll County that do not have even the opportunity to get decent internet and then there’re people who have access but can’t afford it. And not having access to internet is a huge disadvantage — it’s almost an insurmountable disadvantage.”

The amount of aid disbursed to students as a result of the partnership will not be tracked, but Crumley said she considers every student who follows through and applies for aid to be a success. Carroll Community College also offers on-campus student aid from the Carroll Community College Food Locker Program.

Anyone interested in applying for SNAP or other assistance can call the Maryland Benefits Center at 833-373-5867, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.