Report: Financial Aid Central to Community College Student Success

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The increasing cost of college that causes stress for students across the country goes far beyond paying for tuition and fees. Living expenses, books, and transportation costs also stand as financial obstacles to students, particularly those who attend community colleges, who tend to come from lower income backgrounds and struggle to balance their responsibilities in and out of school.

The misconception that a low tuition rate means a college has a low cost overall presents a problem for community college students. Despite the fact that community college students are more likely to have financial need, they typically receive less financial aid than their peers at four-year institutions, according to a new report from the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

After surveying thousands of community college students from 22 institutions in California, where community college tuition is the lowest in the nation, the results showed “the full cost of attendance and the role of financial aid are central to college affordability and outcomes,” the report said.

“Collectively, they powerfully illustrate how student aid can help bring low-income students’ college careers and financial obligations into balance,” the report said.

Of the students surveyed, the majority (61 percent) came from families with annual incomes lower than $30,000. But nearly two-thirds of those low-income students who received financial aid received less than $3,000 in grants and scholarships. Many of the respondents (45 percent) also said they were first-generation college students. While making sure financial aid covers the cost of tuition, or making college tuition-free could help more students enroll in college, lower income students would still be at risk of not completing due to other costs associated with attending college, the report said.

“With limited hours in the day, the tradeoffs between work and school are crystal clear for students, and research confirms that having to put work first makes them much less likely to reach their college goals,” said Debbie Cochrane, TICAS research director and primary author of the report, in a statement. “When financial aid helps cover costs beyond tuition, students can spend more time in class and studying instead of working longer hours to pay the bills. Even with free or very low tuition, students are facing serious financial challenges that undermine college affordability and completion.”

In fact, tuition only makes up about 20 percent of a community college student’s total cost of attendance nationally, according to the report. Results from the California students surveyed showed students are on the hook for thousands of dollars in additional expenses for housing, food, supplies, and transportation. On average, California community college students spend more than $1,100 each year on transportation costs, for example, and 43 percent of the cost of being a California community college student is housing.

And rather than taking out federal student loans to help bridge the gap, community college students are more likely to work to earn more money. More than one-third (36 percent) said they would be “extremely or very likely” to take fewer credits than they want due to the need to work.

“I need and want an education, but it seems the only way to do that is to go into deep debt, which I will not do,” said one 19-year-old student attending school part-time. “I end up having to work a lot, which makes me exhausted and makes it hard for me to study and do well in my classes.”

About three-quarters of the students surveyed said an additional $3,000 in grant aid would make them extremely or very likely to spend more time studying or working on academic-related activities.

Still, many students did not receive the aid for which they’re eligible due to administrative hurdles or other complications. Many students also said they fell behind in some way due to the delayed disbursement of financial aid. But additional financial aid does help make the difference for many students, the report said.

“Financial aid has been very helpful for my academic, financial, and psychological needs,” said one 20-year-old part-time student. “Seeing even a slight amount of money in a bank account is something I consider a privilege. … Financial aid gives me the motivation to wake up and go to school knowing I am prepared for a ‘rainy day.’”


Publication Date: 4/15/2016

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