WASHINGTON ― Community college leaders met in Washington to discuss legislative priorities for the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. At the heart of the conversation was a focus on balancing community college’s traditional mission of access for all and the national conversation about college completion rates.
“As we can consider the HEA reauthorization, we want full victory for community colleges and the understanding of how public policy is different for these community colleges,” said Daniel Phelan, president of Jackson College in Michigan, at a community college panel on Capitol Hill on Monday.
Community college students differ from the type of student who graduates from high school and goes straight on to college, community college presidents and policy experts said. Approximately 12.3 million students attend community college in the United States and their average age is 28. That means they are coming to college later in life and therefore have more responsibilities, such as a job or a family to care for. A further 36 percent of community college students identify as first generation to college and 58 percent of community college students depend on some form of federal aid.
Tim Sheehan, vice president for government and community relations at Salt Lake City Community College, said that, in the 2013-14 school year, more than 3.5 million community college students received more than $11 billion in Pell Grants, or more than 36 percent of the total Pell Grant expenditures for that year. Federal loan policies and changes to Pell Grants therefore have a large impact on the community college student population.
Community college students in particular would benefit from the restoration of the year-round Pell Grant, Sheehan said. Year-round Pell Grants help students work more toward a degree and also aligns better with short-term certificate programs. The program existed from 2008 until it was eliminated in 2011. The maximum Pell Grant will be $5,815 as of July 1.
In addition, Sheehan called for linking annual increases in the maximum amount awarded in the Pell Grant to the consumer price index. Although community colleges still rank as some of the most affordable postsecondary institutions, tuition costs have been rising, particularly in states where support for public higher education has been lessening.
Community college students are also increasingly reliant on federal student loan programs as the total cost of attendance at community college increases. “Almost one out of every five community college students take out a federal loan now,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Twenty years ago, that percentage was about 4 percent.”
Nearly 1 in 5 students default on their loans within three years, closely aligning with the number of community college students who borrow. Policymakers are looking for ways to right those numbers, Baime said. Loan programs were made with the four-year student population in mind, he added, not two-year students.
Baime said that institutions should have some discretion over the amount that different categories of students borrow. Given the variety of types of students who attend community colleges each year, “There’s simply not a one-size-fits-all federal policy that can meet the different needs and the different possibilities and prospects for repaying loans across that entire sector,” Baime said.
In addition, community colleges want to provide better financial advising for their students. After filling out the FAFSA form, students and parents receive an automatic notice about federal loans. However, not all students might be aware that they do not need to take out the full amount of the loan, and that by not taking out the full amount they would be able to prevent some potential debt.
Panelists also discussed federal accounting of graduation data. Currently, federal data looks at results for first-time, full-time students. As a result, the majority of community college students are not captured in federal data, because they transfer out, attend part time or might be returning to school after an absence. Dr. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, pointed out that this contributes to negative perceptions about community colleges’ success rates. In Colorado, only 6.8 percent of community college students attend first time and full time, she said.
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