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The Case for Benefits Navigators

Imagine: You are 18 years old and fresh out of high school. You have been living on your college campus in a dorm for only a few months. Although being on your own is sometimes scary and daunting, you savor your new found independence. Unfortunately, you find yourself sick. Don’t worry, it’s not COVID, but you’ll definitely need antibiotics. You call your on-campus health clinic, and they don’t have the capacity to see you for another 3 weeks! You need medical care now, not in three weeks. You consider going to a physician off campus, but there is no way you can afford it. What do you do?

Imagine: Advancing your own education became a secondary priority after finding out you were pregnant. You planned on finishing your degree once your little bundle of joy was in preschool. You figured you could just take classes while your child was in school. Now the time has come! Your little one is enrolled at the local preschool, and you need to enroll in classes of your own. You only need a few more classes to graduate! You attempt to register for the classes you need and find they are only available in the evening. There goes your plan! Who will watch your little one while you’re in class? With this seemingly small change in scheduling, your entire future now seems uncertain. What do you do?

Imagine: You haven’t had any contact with your family since coming out a few years ago. This has caused you a lot of pain, but you’re determined to succeed regardless of the challenges your family has posed to you. You’ve moved away from home and are doing your best to stay afloat. You have two jobs, a full course load, and no shortage of bills…and now, inflation is making it difficult to afford groceries. Despite working two jobs, after taxes, paying tuition, and rent and bills, you are left with barely enough to feed yourself until your next paycheck. You feel like crumbling. How are you supposed to continue to work and attend classes when all you can focus on is what your next meal will be? What do you do?

Finally, imagine: A center on your college campus that has solutions for all the previously mentioned challenges. These centers are real, and are commonly referred to as Benefits Navigation centers.

Benefits Navigation centers are one-stop shops where students can drop in and discuss with a trained Benefits Navigator the problems they are experiencing with meeting their basic needs. While Benefits Navigators are not meant to solve a students problem outright, they are experienced with and educated in local resources available to help students and aid them in meeting their needs. A Benefits Navigator is familiar with various social safety nets, programs, and how they can be utilized to provide maximum benefits for students.

Let’s explore how the previously mentioned students could utilize a Benefits Navigator in the three scenarios described. The first student discussed is struggling to find affordable healthcare. A Benefits Navigator could help them to find and set up an appointment with a local clinic for low-income individuals. The second student is a student parent, struggling to find child care while they are in class to finally obtain a degree. A Benefits Navigator could assist in referring the student to a state-run child care provider. The third student would definitely benefit from the existence of a Benefits Navigation center. The Navigator would help the student find food in the short term, by providing information about local food pantries. Additionally, the Navigator would assist the student in completing a SNAP application, so the student would be provided with additional financial support.

There are a countless number of scenarios in which a Benefits Navigator could be integral to a student’s success. It is incredibly difficult to succeed academically, when a student’s most basic needs are barely met. A Navigator could fill in that resource gap.

Benefits Navigation Centers are becoming more and more prevalent on college campuses around the nation, and have become integral to student success. However, Benefits Navigators have yet to be seen as valuable on a statewide scale. Young Invincibles is working tirelessly to advocate for Illinois to become the first state in the nation to require Benefits Navigation centers on all public campuses. The Centers must be accessible to all students and be responsive to the particular needs of students from different racial and ethnical backgrounds, socioeconomic status, genders, sexual orientation, disabilities, and more. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and colleges have to ensure every student on their campus can be connected with the specific resources they need. 

Thankfully, positive steps have been taken. In the spring of 2022, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law H.B. 4201, led by State Representative Maurice West. This law will create a Benefits Navigator position on all public college campuses in Illinois. This is an amazing first step, but there is alway more work to be done. Currently, Young Invincibles is leading collaborations with stakeholders to establish standards for these new Benefits Navigator programs to ensure equity across all campuses. It is paramount that a student attending Governors State University is receiving the same access to support as a student attending the flagship University of Illinois. 

Would you visit a Benefits Navigation center? How could a center like this have benefitted you? We would love to share your story, and bring you into the room with decision makers on the importance of meeting students’ basic needs. If you would like to share any thoughts, comments, or personal stories related to this, please email We want to hear from you!


Hannah Keller is Young Invincibles’ Midwest Policy Manager, where she helps lead the office’s policy portfolio.