Community college students are much more likely to qualify for financial aid
than students attending four-year universities
. However, students attending two-year institutions are unlikely to apply for the aid, according to a recently released report by College Board
. The discrepancy has inspired many higher educators to "put on their thinking caps" and come up with a solution to make community college more affordable to those who can least afford it.
According to the College Board Study, only 58% of community college students who are eligible for Pell grants
applied for financial aid, compared with 77% of Pell-eligible students at four-year institutions. The College Board report states, "Although community college students are more likely to be eligible for need-based federal aid, they are less likely than their peers at other types of institutions to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)."
Community colleges have traditionally appealed to low-income students because of their lower tuition rates
and close relationships with the local community. Adults also utilized the educational services at community colleges to further their careers or switch industries
Community colleges provide a valuable service to their communities, but those services are grossly underutilized if the people who need them most cannot get the assistance necessary to use them.
Why Students Don't Apply for Aid
A report on Education-Portal.com
outlines some of the challenges facing low-income students and the community colleges that could provide them with affordable education:
- Students may lack basic understanding about the financial planning necessary to afford a college education.
- Students attending two-year colleges may not receive sufficient information about the various types of financial aid available to them.
- Students who do receive information may be reluctant to apply because of a fear of debt.
- Some students may not trust the government agencies that supply federal aid and refuse to provide the personal information necessary for a financial aid application.
- Students who attend night or weekend classes may not have the same access to college offices that provide financial aid information during normal business hours.
- Lack of funding may restrict a college's ability to reach out to students and educate them about financial aid options.
- Many financial aid offices at community colleges lack resources and staffing to provide sufficient support to students.
While these challenges may seem insurmountable in some situations, the College Board report does provide some possible solutions that would make it more likely that low-income students would be able to apply for the financial aid they desperately need. In fact, with the push to graduate more students through community colleges in the next few years, better education about the financial aid available becomes a must.
"Community colleges are being called upon to increase college access and student completion rates. That means that we will need to do everything that we can to make college affordable to students," George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges said in a College Board press release
. Boggs adds, "The challenge is clearly laid out in this report: community colleges serve the most financially disadvantaged students in all of higher education, yet too many qualified students are not getting the financial help they need. I hope this 'call to action' will make financial aid a higher priority for all of us in community college leadership."
Breaking the Mold
The question then becomes, how do community colleges rise from the current status quo to ensure students of all economic backgrounds enjoy the many opportunities a college education provides? The College Board report makes the following recommendations:
- Make a commitment to student access, financial aid staffing and directing funds at the institution.
- Survey potential students to find out what they know about financial aid before applying to colleges.
- Participate in transition and mentoring programs in partnership with local high schools.
- Consider consolidating resources with community colleges across a single state to establish a single, common financial aid system.
- Work with state government agencies to coordinate financial aid policies and priorities.
The College Board report acknowledges that not all of these recommendations will apply to every community college. They put the responsibility of understanding the reasons why college students do not take advantage of financial aid on community college leaders, so that solutions can be customized to each school's needs.
By streamlining the financial aid process and educating high school students more effectively about the resources available, community colleges may be able to close the gap on financial aid underutilization and help many more students afford the higher education they need to find a lucrative and satisfying career.