SNAP Employment and Training: Overview of the Pennsylvania KEYS Program

November 7, 2022

The SNAP Employment and Training program helps SNAP participants gain skills and find work that moves them forward to self-sufficiency. Through SNAP E&T, SNAP participants have access to training and support services to help them enter or move up in the workforce. These programs also help to reduce barriers to work by providing support services – such as transportation and childcare – as participants prepare for and obtain employment. Each state is required to operate a SNAP E&T program and receives federal funding annually to operate and administer the program. During our recent Peer Learning Network discussion, we were joined by Butler County Community College and Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, both located in Pennsylvania, to learn about their KEYS programs.

Butler County Community College is in Butler, Pennsylvania which has six campuses and serves five rural counties in Pennsylvania. Butler County Community College has about 2,500 students currently enrolled, which is down from the previous year. Pennsylvania Highlands Community College is in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and has six campuses serving four rural counties in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Highlands Community College has approximately 2,400 students enrolled and over 50% of students are high school students taking dual enrollment coursework through the ACE program.

The KEYS Program is Pennsylvania’s program to provide access to SNAP E&T programs to SNAP participants. The KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success) program is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. To be eligible for KEYS an individual must be receiving SNAP benefits or TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families); and be enrolled in one of the 14 Pennsylvania community colleges or be interested in enrolling in community college within 60 days of the KEYS referral.

Support from the KEYS Program

The support that SNAP students receive from the KEYS program is invaluable. Through special allowances from the County Assistance Offices (CAO), the KEYS program can provide childcare assistance at the Early Learning Resource Center (ELRC), transportation assistance and car repairs up to $1,500 annually, textbooks and/or class fees of $1,000 lifetime limit, and registration fees for training which is used from the $1,000 lifetime limit. Additionally, SNAP students can receive additional support through the technology loan program. This program provides laptops, hot spots, web cams, and graphing calculators to students. Students are also able to borrow textbooks and materials through the KEYS Lending Library. In addition to the hour of tutoring that all students receive, the KEYS program provides an additional hour of tutoring per class to SNAP students. The KEYS program also provides SNAP participant reimbursements, such as gas cards and bookstore gift certificates to support students in getting to class and having the materials that they need.

Recently, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College has brought a licensed therapist who is paid through by the KEYS’ funding to provide the necessary mental health services to SNAP students. Understanding that supporting the mental health of students is critical and makes a huge difference in their lives, Pennsylvania Highlands Community College allows SNAP students to make individual appointments with their licensed therapist to seek the support that they need.

Lessons Learned

When the KEYS program began, eligible students were referred to the program by the CAOs. It was noted that this process of referrals was slow and created a delay in students receiving the supports they needed from the KEYS program. To help speed up the process for new students or individuals that were already enrolled, but just found out about the KEYS program, the KEYS Reverse Referrals form was created. This form is completed when a SNAP recipient that is enrolled or interested in enrolling at a community college and want to participate in the KEYS program. Once the form is completed, it is sent to the CAO to verify SNAP eligibility. The reverse referral form has limited the back-and-forth that community colleges and the CAOs would have in verifying enrollment and SNAP eligibility. It is estimated that most of the students participating in the KEYS program at Butler County Community College and Pennsylvania Highland Community College are referred to the program through the reverse referral form.

Leveraging partnerships across the state of Pennsylvania at other community colleges have allowed both Butler County Community College and Pennsylvania Highland Community College to thrive. Additionally, support from the Bureau of Employment programs allows these community colleges to meet monthly and learn about any new policies that are coming through. Partnerships with the state agencies and CAOs allow for open dialogues to occur to ensure that the KEYS program is successful in supporting SNAP students. The representatives from Butler County Community College and Pennsylvania Highland Community College indicated that they feel heard by the state agencies when they conduct audits and are wanting to learn how the KEYS program could be improved.

One of the most important lessons learned from the experience of supporting and managing the KEYS programs at their institutions is to embrace change and be open to it. Over the years that the KEYS program has existed there have been changes in the guidelines which impacts how the program operates. For example, some agencies that these institutions partner with might require additional documentation to be completed to have a better understanding of each student that is participating in the KEYS program. As a coordinator of the program, it was initially seen as more work that needed to be completed on top of everything else that was already expected. However, the document was based on the social determinants of health and allowed KEYS program staff to gain a better understanding of their students and is now vital to how faculty and staff can support their students.

Overall embracing change can be beneficial to everyone involved. A key point to make note of when embracing change is to stay focused on your students. At times there might be funding issues related to SNAP in the middle of the year, but focusing on supporting SNAP students in the midst of these challenges is very important to ensuring that they are able to stay engaged and enrolled in their education. Even if this means having to be a little more creative and innovative to support our students.

Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Initiative to convene rural community college leaders while providing technical support, assistance, and resources on federal policy and advocacy. This initiative builds on ACCT’s prior work through the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges report that engaged rural community college presidents and trustees to gather information about the challenges faced by these institutions.

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