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New Report Offers Solutions to Financial Aid Challenges at Community Colleges

May 20, 2010

The College Board's new Advocacy & Policy Center just released a report on the underutilization of financial aid at 2-year institutions. Although community college students are the most likely to qualify for financial aid, they're also the least likely to apply for it. The report explores the likely causes of this discrepancy and offers policy solutions to help correct it.

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Community colleges are one of our country's most vital educational resources. They make postsecondary education affordable and accessible to a significant percentage of the population - almost half the undergraduate students in the U.S. are at 2-year institutions. In addition to providing a low-cost core college education to students preparing to transfer to 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges offer a broad range of professional training programs for people who are seeking fast entry into the workforce.

Because of their low tuition and close ties to local communities, 2-year colleges serve a large low-income population. Their students are more likely to be eligible for financial aid than their peers at 4-year institutions, yet they're less likely to file the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). According to the College Board, only 58% of Pell-eligible community college students applied for federal financial aid in the 2007-08 school year, as compared with 77% of Pell-eligible students at 4-year public schools. (The federal Pell Grant program offers grant aid to low-income students, and is widely used as a measure of how many low-income students are at an institution.)

Not filing the FAFSA can have a major impact on a student's education. Many students rely on estimated costs to select an institution. The FAFSA is required to qualify for federal, state and institutional loans, grants and work-study programs - not having access to these funds can significantly shrink the pool of schools available to prospective students. Furthermore, many students who aren't receiving aid choose to take a smaller course load to save on tuition, or find themselves working over 20 hours per week to cover costs, which can cause their grades to suffer and lead to a longer time to degree. Other students end up taking out high-interest private loans, which can cripple their finances after graduation.

The College Board's new Advocacy & Policy Center recently released a report examining this issue and offering solutions that community colleges can quickly implement. Seeking the underlying causes of the underutilization of financial aid at community colleges, the report draws on studies that have identified the following challenges:

  • Community college students may lack a basic understanding of the financial planning required to fund a college education.
  • Students at 2-year institutions often don't receive clear, consistent and early information about the financial consequences of going to college, nor do they receive information about financial aid before enrolling.
  • Those students who do receive information about aid options are often reluctant to apply because they don't want to borrow and take on debt.
  • Some groups of community college students may distrust or not understand government agencies that ask for personal financial information, which is a prerequisite for aid.
  • Many community college students attend evening or online classes, which makes it difficult to access on-campus services.
  • Public funding is scarce at many community colleges, making it difficult to prioritize the outreach required to educate students about financial aid.
  • Financial aid offices often lack sufficient technological and human resources to provide students with thorough information or one-on-one assistance.

Connecting with Students

So how can community colleges fix this situation? The College Board report suggests that all 2-year institutions review their FAFSA filing rates, evaluate current outreach efforts and develop a plan to increase the number of students applying for aid. Citing the hundreds of popular financial aid websites, the report emphasizes the fact that the information is out there and accessible - the key is reaching out personally to students to guide them to the available resources, rather than waiting for them to approach the administration. The report outline several areas in which schools can make improvements:

Financial Aid Offices

Due to limited space and resources in many financial aid offices, student outreach and counseling often gets overlooked. However, these personal connections are 'invaluable' for initiating the aid application process. The report calls for college leaders to provide more institutional resources to financial aid offices to ensure that they're run with a 'student focus' and can effectively handle the needs of all students.

Institutional Outreach and Community Partnerships

Outreach is especially complex at community colleges because they cater to an extremely diverse student body. Adult students often have a hard time connecting with administrative services, as do night students and working part time students. The report urges schools to, 'at a minimum,' provide full-service financial aid services after working hours. It also recommends that schools survey adult students to find out where they obtain information so schools can target those places when attempting to disseminate financial aid resources to adult students. One avenue the report highlights is community and public organizations that often refer adult students to community colleges. By tapping into those networks, colleges can offer students financial aid information before they even enroll.

High School and College Collaboration

Community colleges also have a significant share of traditional-age students. These students, who tend to be undecided about college in their high school years, tend to be responsible for the last-minute surge of applications that community colleges receive at the beginning of the semester. This overburdens the financial aid office and makes it hard to reach out to all of the students who need assistance. The report recommends that colleges reach out to local high schools and help prospective students consider the community college option much earlier. Collaboration efforts could include summer bridge programs, sharing data or sharing counseling staffs. This would both reduce the last-minute rush and offer early financial guidance to incoming traditional-age students.

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The College Board report acknowledges that, while these school-level measures are crucial, 'change must begin at the top.' They note that one common factor among successful community college financial aid programs is statewide coordination, which offers leadership and resources from state-level offices. It's also important for government agencies to improve their outreach independently of schools, using existing partnerships and connections to connect with a larger pool of students and potential students. The report also notes recent federal efforts to make the FAFSA form less complex in response to the large number of students who report being discouraged from applying because they find the process long and complicated.

Community college students and administrators who are interested in the College Board's policy recommendations, or just want to learn more about successful models, can download the report on the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center's website.

Students: Check out these articles on student finances, including tips on saving money, finding grants and filling out the FAFSA.

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