Living Paycheck to Paycheck, Many Community College Students at Risk of Withdrawal

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The cost of attending college is a concern for many students across the country, particularly for those attending community colleges, where more than 1 in 3 receive a Pell Grant. But community college students are struggling to pay for things outside of tuition – such as food, housing, and other basic needs – which may contribute to their troubles completing college, according to a new report.

The report, released by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCSSE) on Tuesday, found that nearly half of community college students (47 percent) said a lack of finances could cause them to withdraw from school. The CCSSE survey was administered to nearly 100,000 students at 177 colleges

While the Pell Grant is typically used as a measure of financial need, it doesn’t fully capture the true financial need among community college students. Among those who received Pell Grants, 40 percent said they also took out student loans. But another 30 percent of students did not ever file the FAFSA, the report said.

“Perhaps of greatest concern is that financial need—however it is measured—correlates with lower educational aspirations,” the report said. “Thus, today’s least affluent students are least likely to aspire to a bachelor’s degree and therefore are least likely to earn the higher salaries that such a degree brings.”

The report points out that there is a gap between the maximum Pell Grant award and what it costs to attend a community college as a full-time student – and that gap has been increasing over the years. In 2011-12, the maximum Pell Grant covered just 37 percent of the average total price of attending a public two-year college, the report said. What’s more, 61 percent of Pell Grant recipients lived below the poverty line.

The report also found that students with children are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck (74 percent compared with 63 percent) and to believe they have too much debt – two pieces of information the report said colleges can use to help students who need more support.

Despite their financial struggles, many students (30 percent) said they stay enrolled in school in order to receive financial aid, and few students said they were confident they would be able to come up with smaller amounts of emergency funds – between $500 and $2,000 – if an unexpected need arose. In fact, more than half of students (51 percent) said they had run out of money at least once in the past year.

Many students – about a quarter – also said they want more information about financial aid, and that their institution did not provide adequate information. The report suggests that colleges build financial literacy into required courses to help communicate with students and begin to identify which skills they need. Many students who said they ran out of money also agreed that they have the skills to manage their finances well. That finding could indicate that there may be financial skills the students don’t know about, the report said, or that they have budgeting skills but not enough money to cover their expenses.

“Perhaps if students had better long-term budgeting skills, their situations would improve,” the report said. “That said, long-term financial planning is very difficult for individuals with limited discretionary income (or no income at all). Thus, it is possible that students’ running out of money is not a function of poor financial management skills, but simply indicates a reality of not having enough resources.”

“Any of these speculations could be correct, and certainly the financial realities are different for different students,” the report continued. “For all students, however, one thing is clear: Colleges are in a unique position to identify and teach the financial skills students need to learn.”


Publication Date: 2/22/2017

Jeanette S | 2/27/2017 4:44:24 PM

The financial aid office has a cost of living formula. Most students receive a stipend if their EFC (expected family contribution). Some colleges hand out stipend checks the first day of classes.

Richard H | 2/22/2017 11:31:31 AM

The CCSE report does not include a critical issue of affordability that developmental course requirements add to students. When the college is not ready to serve to student with credit bearing courses at the point that they graduate from high school significant additional cost in the form of tuition, fees, books and time are added to the students bottom line. Meeting the cost of degree completion has two major factors one being the amount of tuition and fees for an individual course or credit and the other is the number of credits and courses a student is required to take and the availability of those courses. The additional costs incurred for both Developmental courses and successful completed courses that do not transfer are topics many have been unwilling to address and continue to be a cost factor for students.

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