Forty-seven percent of community college students say that financial problems could cause them to leave school. If we want to raise completion rates for millions of community college students, then we must make sure that they can pay for college — and for housing, food and other basic needs while in college.
Make no mistake, a college degree is more important than ever. A person with an associate’s degree earns $120 more per week on average than does a high school graduate, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. And the earnings for holders of a bachelor’s degree are typically $459 per week higher. While there are many non-monetary benefits to a college education, the financial advantage is clear.
But many community college students never attain those degrees. We surveyed more than 99,000 of them at 177 institutions to learn more about the role that finances play in their educational aspirations and to see what community colleges themselves might do to improve the situation. This is detailed in a the report titled “Making Ends Meet: The Role of Community Colleges in Student Financial Health.”
The financial circumstances of community college students are complex. About half of those we surveyed are working more than 20 hours per week in addition to taking classes. Fully 30 percent are at work more than 30 hours per week. Most employed students say they are living paycheck to paycheck and that is even truer for students with dependent children. Just more than half say they have too much student loan debt. If an unexpected need arose in the next month, 59 percent report that they would have trouble laying their hands on $1,000 to meet it.
Pell Grants are a standard indicator of financial need. That’s because 61 percent of recipients live below the poverty threshold. Nearly four out of ten community college students reported receiving Pell grants. Even for that group, the Pell Grant was not always enough. Forty percent of Pell recipients also rely on student loans. Research has shown that the greater a person’s financial need, the lower their educational aspirations.
Some states are trying to help. Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee offer scholarships and tuition waivers to certain populations of students. Other states are considering such programs. While these efforts assist some students, however, the support is often not enough. More importantly, it is not available to everyone.
Colleges themselves should help students take advantage of every type of support available to them. By doing so they can encourage students to raise their aspirations even if they have limited resources for college.
There is room for improvement in this regard. Ninety-one percent told us they needed information about financial assistance and 27 percent of those disagreed or strongly disagreed that their college provided adequate information.
All colleges should provide clear information about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the daunting FAFSA form that some intimidated students never complete. Financial aid staffers should guide students through it so that everyone who might be eligible for aid applies for it.
They ought to connect students to scholarships, public benefits, nutrition and transportation assistance, healthcare and childcare. Colleges must ensure that all faculty and staff are fully informed about support services for students with financial need.
They also should teach students about financial literacy. The survey results, however, do not seem to indicate that a lot of problems are due to an inability of students to budget well. Almost nine in ten report that though they may be scraping by they are generally able to pay their bills on time. The more serious problem seems to be a lack of money to be budgeted.
Most of the sustainable jobs of today and tomorrow require higher education. It is manifest that serious attention needs to be paid to increasing the financial resources available to community college students so that they can be full partners in the economy of the future.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Evelyn N. Waiwaiole is director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas-Austin.