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Community Colleges

When Employed Students Stumble

Community college students who hold jobs are less likely to finish school. What are institutions doing to increase degree completion?
University Business, Nov 2011
Financial aid information is easy to find at Pierce College.
Making it easy to find financial aid information, as it is at Pierce College, may help keep students in school.

Working one’s way through college is the norm for community college students: 85 percent work part- or full-time. With an average tuition bill of $2,713 a year, only 13 percent turn to student loans.

But long work hours have a high cost, concludes a 2011 report by the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center. Only 21 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete a degree or certificate in three years. The six-year completion or transfer rate is 31 percent. Part-timers, who make up 59 percent of enrollment, do even worse.

Some students “should borrow more and work less to increase their chance of completing a degree,” says report co-author Sandy Baum. “People who work 10 to 15 hours do OK,” but as work hours increase, grades slide.

“The worst thing students can do is go part-time or work full-time. Both drastically reduce their chance of completion,” says Debbie Cochrane, a program director for The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

U.S. student debt has reached $1 trillion. New four-year graduates are struggling to find work and repay more than $24,000 on average in student loans. By contrast, only 5 percent of community college graduates owe more than $20,000 and most owe nothing. Is it really wise for people to quit their jobs and go into debt?

‘Community college students are in much more precarious financial positions [than four-year students]. The consequences of failure are substantial.’ —Richard Vedder, Center for College Affordability and Productivity

It depends, analysts say. Adults with skilled jobs shouldn’t quit, says Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor of economics and education and a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia University. But, “straight out of high school, when they’re working entry-level jobs, it makes sense to work less, borrow more and complete a degree a year or two earlier,” advises Scott-Clayton.

Most college drop-outs cite financial pressures—“I needed to go to work to make money” and “I just couldn’t afford the tuition”—as their reason for leaving, concludes a 2009 Public Agenda study, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them.” Drop-outs were half as likely as graduates to report receiving financial aid or scholarships. Six in 10 community college students surveyed were working more than 20 hours a week; a quarter worked more than 35 hours a week.

Full-time community college students are more likely to complete a degree or certificate, according to a six-year federal study. Only 3.3 percent of part-time community college students complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to 22.5 percent of full-timers who started at community college. Associate degree completion rates climb from 13.6 percent for part-timers to 21.9 percent for full-time students.

The effect of working is not clear, says Mark Kantrowitz, who runs Cutting back on work hours boosts degree completion rates, but has no effect on certificate completion. In fact, full-time workers are more likely to complete a certificate than students who are unemployed or working part time.

Work Less, Borrow More?

“The idea that encouraging part-time students to borrow more might lead to a reduction in work intensity which in turn will lead to a shift in enrollment status from part-time to full-time and thus an improvement in completion rates is certainly an attractive idea,” but the “data just isn’t all that convincing,” says Kantrowitz. “Advising students to increase debt (as opposed to directly advising them to work less and enroll full-time) might not be effective in improving completion rates.”

In addition, there’s a risk that students will borrow too much.

“It’s probably true that if community college people borrowed more, they’d probably see a modest increase in graduation rates,” says Richard Vedder, an Ohio State economist who runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. But some will borrow and still not graduate, ending up with more debt and no degree. “Community college students are in much more precarious financial positions” than four-year students, Vedder warns. “The consequences of failure are substantial.”

Community colleges disproportionately attract low- and moderate-income students: 29 percent have annual household incomes less than $20,000. Some 30 percent are minorities; the number of Latinos is growing rapidly.

Low-income, first-generation students are “terrified of loans because we see how trapped our parents are by debt,” says Isa Adney, a student life coordinator at Seminole State College (Fla.) The first in her family to go to college, Adney chose community college over private college to avoid borrowing, then won a scholarship to fund her bachelor’s degree. “I often advise students to think about college loans as an investment” that will help them “make so much more money in the long run than they will in their minimum-wage jobs.”

Qualifying for Aid

Community college students aren’t just wary of borrowing. They’re less likely to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which qualifies students for both loans and Pell Grants. Community college students are leaving millions of dollars in federal financial aid on the table each year, says Cochrane.

About 58 percent of Pell-eligible community college students filled out FAFSA in 2007-2008 compared to nearly 77 percent of eligible students at public four-year institutions.

Some students say they didn’t realize they were eligible for aid. Others don’t make it through the paperwork, Cochrane says. In a study of California community colleges, one third of eligible students never got a Pell Grant because they didn’t bring in additional documentation.

Whether students get financial aid can also depend on their college’s attitude, concluded a 2007 TICAS study, “Green Lights & Red Tape: Improving Access to Financial Aid at California’s Community Colleges.” The unofficial motto at one school’s financial aid office is “When in doubt, give it out,” while an aid director at another school said, “We are the police officers of Title IV funds.”

Ten percent of community college students—more than one million students—are enrolled in colleges that don’t participate in the federal loan program. College officials worry students will borrow too much and fear federal sanctions if students default. But without access to subsidized loans, some students take out high-priced private loans, Cochrane says.

There is some progress. The U.S. Education Department simplified the FAFSA, though students still struggle to fill out the forms without help.

It’s now possible to transfer a student’s financial information electronically from an IRS form to FAFSA. In a pilot, H&R Block asked clients if they’d like help with the transfer. It had a “huge impact,” says Scott-Clayton.

However, community college officials are watching the Pell Grant debate nervously. Already, the roll-back on year-round grants has cut summer enrollment. If the fast-growing, very costly program loses funding, it will force more community college students to borrow—or drop out.

Pell advocates propose redesigning the grants to provide incentives for students to move quickly to a degree and for colleges to control tuition costs. Some suggest educational savings accounts that would give low-income students control of how they use their postsecondary aid.

In any case, these issues are front and center. President Obama’s campaign to increase the number of college-educated Americans will rely heavily on community colleges and their students. How can community colleges help those students persist and complete? There are no simple solutions, but at least conversations continue.