Many people have an idyllic image of college
as a time of freedom and exploration, with few responsibilities. Yet more and
more students, especially in community colleges, are older, with adult
responsibilities, and adult concerns. Many of them are low-income.
For these students, public benefits can be an
important bridge to college success, especially among older, non-traditional
students with families. Unfortunately, such students often don’t know where to
look. Educating students about the help that is available is an investment in
their futures that will pay dividends for society.
In search of an affordable path to
postsecondary and economic success, 7.1 million students attend community
colleges each year. But while tuition costs are significantly lower than those
at four-year public institutions, other costs of attending community college –
including basic living expenses, transportation, and textbooks – are still
substantial. In 2010-11, a year at a community college was estimated to cost
$14,637, compared to $20,339 for the average undergraduate at a public,
For students who are supporting families, the
cost is even higher, as housing, food, and child care costs add to the total.
Once a rarity, these students are becoming increasingly common. In 2009, 42.1
percent of students were over 24, and 23 percent were parents.
Financial aid can help to cover costs, but
community college students receive comparatively little financial support, and their
overall burden is high. In addition, financial aid policies often are written
with younger students in mind, some of whom can depend on their own parents for
economic support. After accounting for available financial aid, a greater share
of community college students still have unmet need (80 percent) than did
public four-year college students (54 percent). The average full-time community
college student is projected to have more than $6,000 in unmet need in 2010-2011.
This is part of the reason why more than 80
percent of community college students combine school with part- or full-time
work, often to cover their basic living expenses. While part-time jobs can help
students with future employment, excessive work can interfere with school,
leading to prolonged time to completion or even dropping out. Students who miss
class to go to work are likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and get
grades that reflect their poor attendance. But students who refuse work shifts
that conflict with their classes may be fired, or simply find themselves
scheduled for so few hours that they can’t pay their bills.
By applying for public benefits and
refundable tax credits, low-income students can fill the gap between financial
aid and the resources needed to attend college. Students who are parents may be
eligible for cash and nutritional assistance, child care subsidies, public
health insurance, and tax credits, although the details vary by state.
Students who are not parents are generally eligible
for fewer benefits, but may receive support from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and tax credits. This help can allow students to
complete their studies successfully and swiftly, and move into good jobs, so
they will be less likely to need such supports in the future.
The problem remains, however, that many
community college students are unaware of their potential eligibility for these
programs, or how to apply for them.
That’s why some colleges and nonprofits are
experimenting with providing help to students in accessing these programs. For
example, Partners for a Hunger-free Oregon has publicized that certain students
are eligible for SNAP benefits, and Portland State University includes
information about SNAP on its website. In addition, Single Stop USA is
partnering with several large community colleges to provide benefit screening
for students on campus. In Massachusetts, the Crittenton Women’s Union and the
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute put out a guide
to benefit programs that college students may be eligible to receive. More
colleges concerned with increasing their students’ completion rates should
consider such approaches.
When President Obama said in a national
speech that “a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is
a pre-requisite,” he wasn’t telling the low-income workers of America anything
that they didn’t already know. They see it firsthand in paychecks that run out
before the end of the month and the help-wanted ads that demand credentials
they don’t have.
Millions of them are answering the call,
getting their children up before dark, working all day, racing to class after
their shifts, studying on the bus home, falling asleep over their books, and then
getting up the next day to do it all again.
Public benefits and tax credits won’t make it
easier to return to a classroom desk after years away, but they can make the hours
of work a little shorter, the kitchen cabinets more full, or the child care
higher quality, all of which help students graduate sooner, and with better
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Elizabeth Lower-Basch is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.