Exclusive Commentary

More Than Just Financial Aid: An Initiative to Make Community College Affordable for Low-income Americans

Jim Applegate, the Lumina Foundation. Mimi Corcoran, the Open Society Foundations. Evelyn Ganzglass, the Center for Law and Social Policy. Susan Gewirtz, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Chauncy Lennon, the Ford Foundation. Kathryn Jo Mannes, the American Association of Community Colleges. Caroline Altman, the Kresge Foundation. - Posted September 18, 2012


A central tenet of the American Dream is the opportunity to create a better life for yourself and your children through education and hard work. For many, a college education has long been the path to building this better life. Yet, if you are born into poverty, the odds of increasing your mobility and achieving the American Dream are against you. Only 34 percent of children who grow up in families at the bottom quintile of the income distribution enroll in college and a dismal 11 percent of them go on to graduate. Something about this pathway to the American Dream for some of our most vulnerable isn’t working. 

Figuring out how to help students attend college and ensure that they are able to complete their studies and obtain a good job with some amount of expediency is critical. Historically, the community colleges have been an accessible and affordable postsecondary path for low-income students, non-traditional or working students, immigrants, and for those needing to build basic educational skills. They are important gateways to receiving skills and training with direct workforce connections. Even so, access to community colleges and to financial aid is not enough to ensure college success. 

We believe community colleges can and should do more. But we also know that community colleges can’t do it alone. 

Costs for college can be a major barrier for low-income students. While financial aid helps, it is increasingly clear that financial aid alone is insufficient. A striking 80 percent of all community college students report having significant unmet financial need (the difference between financial aid and the total cost of attending college) even after they receive financial aid supports, leaving most students to figure out how to provide for themselves and their families while also affording school.

Further, a recent Public Agenda study confirms that the number one reason students left college is because of the pressures of combining work and school. Over 70 percent of those leaving said they left because they needed to support themselves and/or their families. Not only is this a lost opportunity for the individuals searching for a better life, but it represents a lost opportunity for the community colleges and for our nation. America needs well educated citizens to remain competitive in the global economy and for the health of our democracy.

In recent years, our philanthropic institutions and policy organizations along with others in the field have developed initiatives focused on increasing community college completion rates—to address the varied and complex reasons that keep low-income, low skilled, and low wage workers from graduating. But even with these efforts, the lack of other financing and family income supports remain a barrier to pursuing and completing college. Indeed, many students who may be eligible for such supports are often unaware that they qualify and, therefore, conclude that a college education isn’t within their reach. What’s more, some public benefit programs may contain barriers to students receiving family supports while in school.  In our view these policies are short-sighted and create disincentives for students to get the education and skills needed to gain their financial footing.

In an effort to help, our philanthropic institutions and policy organizations have joined with government to build on existing community college completion efforts and to add a specific and intentional focus on redefining the concept of financial aid and student supports by accessing public benefits through the community college system.

The partners in this three-year initiative, called Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC), have begun to work with five leading community colleges: Cuyahoga Community College (OH), Gateway Community and Technical College (KY), LaGuardia Community College (NY), Northampton Community College (PA), and Skyline College (CA). Macomb Community College and Lake Michigan College are performing similar work in Michigan and will share their learning with the other colleges in BACC.

For low-income community college students juggling work, studies, and family responsibilities, the combination of financial aid and access to benefits such as Food Stamps, health insurance, energy assistance, child care subsidies, transportation supports, and the like, could be pivotal in increasing graduation rates and improving their opportunities for real career pathways that lead to good jobs. We know that benefits increase the stability of low-income families. We know that higher education increases life-time earnings. We believe this innovative combination of financial aid and benefits may just be a game changer.  

Together, we are integrating access to federal and state supports and other existing public resources into college operations. As colleges in this initiative discover effective models and strategies, we hope their lessons will be replicated by the 1,200 community colleges across the country working to build skills and help students gain economic security for themselves and their families. And their success will be the success of our communities and our nation.

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Jim Applegate is the vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation.

Mimi Corcoran is the director of the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation at the Open Society Foundations.

Evelyn Ganzglass is the director of Workforce Development at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Susan Gewirtz is a senior associate for the Center for Family Economic Success at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Chauncy Lennon is a program officer at the Ford Foundation.

Kathryn Jo Mannes is the director of the Center for Workforce and Economic Development at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Caroline Altman Smith is a senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation.


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