A colleagues shared the link to The Institute for College Access & Success’ April 2016 report On The Verge – Costs and Tradeoffs Facing Community College Students. If you are a community college administrator, faculty, or staff member…if you are a university professional that supports community colleges in your region…and if you support academic success…you MUST read this article.

As a community college dropout, this report spoke to me. It reiterated why I have the passion to do what I am doing – why I have dedicated my time and resources to college transition – why Tawnya Beermann and I wrote the book, Life During Community College.  But instead of trying to describe the content of the report myself, I’ll use their introduction:

Even the most devoted and prepared college students can be slowed or stopped in their tracks by financial obstacles. Whether the challenges are covering basic needs like food or housing, or handling unexpected financial obligations like car repairs or medical bills, there is a growing body of research showing that students’ ability to pay for non-tuition costs can make or break their academic career. This is particularly true at community colleges, where low-income students commonly enroll in hopes of receiving an affordable education, and where low tuition is too often misunderstood to mean low total cost. It is true even in California where community college tuition is the lowest in the nation and waived entirely for students with financial need.

Students’ ability to pay the tuition bill, whether with family resources, student aid, or waivers, enables them to enroll in college, but it takes much more to stay in school and complete. In fact, tuition composes only 20 percent of community college students’ total costs nationally.1 Basic needs such as housing and food are part of the cost of attending college, and students also need to pay for transportation as well as textbooks and supplies to be able to attend class and study. To learn more about the costs and tradeoffs that students face, and the implications for their ability to succeed in school, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) surveyed California community college students on their expenses, their aid, and the choices they make when their resources do not stretch far enough. The themes that emerged reinforce that the full cost of attendance and the role of financial aid are central to college affordability and outcomes. They are also consistent with existing data on community colleges and a growing a body of research on the financial challenges facing low-income students.

When financial aid helps students cover costs beyond tuition, it allows them to spend their time in class and studying, rather than working long hours to pay the bills. Full-time students have at least 12 hours of classes per week, and for every hour spent in class, students must spend additional hours completing coursework and studying. Being a full-time student is time-consuming, but it matters: students who enroll in college full time are much more likely to complete their program, and complete it faster. Yet students who both enroll full time and work full time are less likely to graduate than those who limit their work hours while in school.2 Financial aid helps to address the financial loss associated with spending time studying instead of earning money, often referred to as an “opportunity cost.” However, for most low-income students at community colleges, available resources do not stretch nearly far enough.

Compared to students at public and nonprofit four-year colleges, community college students are lower income and receive less financial aid. More than half (55%) of full-time financial aid applicants at community colleges have an “expected family contribution” of zero: in other words, their income is so low that the U.S. Department of Education estimates they cannot afford to put any money towards paying for college. The same is true of about one-third (34%) of public four-year college students and one-quarter (24%) of those at nonprofit four-year colleges.3 Despite their greater need and the substantial costs they face, community college students are much less likely than public or nonprofit four-year college students to receive most forms of financial aid, including state and institutional grants, and the grants that they do receive are relatively small.4 Federal loans can help fill the gap, though relatively few community college students choose to borrow and some community colleges do not even make federal loans available.

When community college students’ resources from savings, earnings, and grants are not enough to cover their costs – as is the case for virtually all low-income students at community colleges – they are left with limited options. Can costs be reduced by not buying required textbooks? Should they work even longer hours? If working long hours, should they try to maintain their course load or cut back to part time? Each one of these is a financial choice that undermines academic success.

Read the full report HERE.

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