Aid sought for Ohio students seeking 2-year degrees
The Columbus Dispatch
Monday November 25, 2013 5:56 AM
The leaders of Ohio’s public community colleges say they’re tired of their students being treated like second-class citizens.
And they want lawmakers to set aside $20 million so their students can again draw money from the state’s largest need-based financial-aid program — the same as most other students, including those at for-profit schools.
“The current system is unfair and unjust,” said Karen Rafinski, interim president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.
In 2009, legislators slashed the Ohio College Opportunity Grant program by more than half, from $395 million to $171 million, to help deal with the state’s financial crisis. They also forced students to use federal Pell grants before other aid.
Because tuition is so low at community colleges, Pell grants typically cover students’ tuition, leaving them ineligible for state money, which can be used only for tuition and fees, Rafinski said. Without the state grants, students’ Pell grants don’t stretch as far and can’t be relied on to help pay for books, child care, transportation and other school-related expenses.
Students enrolled in for-profit schools, regional campuses of the state’s public four-year universities and a few of the cheaper four-year schools also lost their eligibility for the state aid in 2009. Lawmakers restored funding to for-profit colleges last year, after a lobbying campaign by the industry. But the others remain unfunded because of the requirement to apply federal Pell money before other aid.
The state should restore OCOG funding to pre-recession levels, said Bruce E. Johnson, president of the Inter-University Council, which represents the state’s 14 public four-year colleges. But unlike Rafinski, he thinks that money should continue to be earmarked for tuition — not for incidental costs. That’s because there are tens of thousands of poor students who don’t have enough money to pay for school, he said.
But Rafinski said community-college students are some of the state’s most financially disadvantaged.
“It makes no sense that they should be struggling to pay for their education when they made the wise choice of attending some of the most affordable schools,” she said.
Last school year, the average tuition and fees at Ohio’s community colleges was $3,484 — just less than a third of that at the state’s four-year public universities. Before the changes, about 20,000 community-college students received the annual need-based grants.
About 46 percent of all undergraduate students nationwide attend a community college. That figure is expected to continue growing. Experts estimate that 30 percent of new job openings through 2020 will require only a community-college education.
The loss of state grant aid means two-year schools are less accessible to low-income and working-adult students. It also has resulted in students having to borrow more money and a higher default rate, according to a study by Community Research Partners, which looked at how the cuts are affecting Ohio’s education and employment goals.
Encouraging students to complete certificates and degrees at community colleges can help the state quickly fill Ohio job openings, said David Harrison, president of Columbus State Community College. And nearly 30 percent of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more than those with bachelor’s degrees, proving those degrees are attractive, he said.
The year before the cuts, 3,816 Columbus State students received an average of $1,733 in the state grants.
“It only makes sense to restore that money,” Harrison added.
Several lawmakers agree.
“We rely on community colleges to be a key driver of workforce development training and to meet the needs of our diverse regions,” state Rep. Michael Stinziano, D-Columbus, said. Not supporting those students is unconscionable, he added.
Stinziano said the cuts to the state aid program was a hot topic during six public hearings that were held this summer by a bipartisan committee seeking ways to improve Ohio’s higher-education system. Though the individual grants are small, they would help a lot of more people if the program was expanded, added Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park.
Rafinski’s group is recommending that lawmakers make community college students eligible for up to $2,000 a year in OCOG money. She also would like to see the state use the grants as an incentive to improve graduation rates and speed the time it takes students to graduate.
Eligible students, for instance, could be given one-third of the grant at the start of the semester, and the remaining two-thirds when they complete their coursework each term. If students don’t pass all their classes, they would receive a prorated amount, she said.