Financial aid 101

Ohio community colleges can close the skills gap, if their students secure a fair share of higher education assistance

Ohio’s 23 community colleges have provided opportunities to hundreds of thousands of workers. They boost the state’s economy by offering employers the highly skilled employees they need to compete in the 21st century.

Even so, Ohio’s financial aid system continues to treat community colleges — and the 200,000 students they serve — like second-class citizens. A change in eligibility could help fix the problem.

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In 2009, the General Assembly slashed the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) program and made other ill-considered changes that, in effect, rendered community college students ineligible for need-based state grants. Lawmakers forced low-income students to use federal Pell grants to cover tuition costs at community colleges before they could tap state grants that only cover tuition. Before the change, 20,000 Ohio community college students got state grants to pay for training and education that opened doors to a better future.

The best fix would be for lawmakers to permit community college students to, first, use OCOG to cover tuition costs, and then tap federal Pell grants for other college-related expenses. If that were done, the state would need to invest $20 million more a year in OCOG to meet the needs of newly eligible community college students.

A grand fix probably won’t happen this year. Still, Gov. John Kasich could make financial aid more fair and relevant by including in his new budget a prudent recommendation by the Ohio Board of Regents to permit year-round students — those attending three terms instead of two — to get help from OCOG after they exhaust their Pell grants. The federal grants aren’t offered in summer, creating a gap in financial assistance that OCOG could help fill.

“This is a pretty big move in the right direction,” Jack Hershey, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, told The Blade’s editorial page. “If a student is motivated to go year-round, we should support and encourage that.”

The proposed change would enable at least some previously ineligible community college students to receive OCOG assistance. That move should help the struggling Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township, with more than 12,000 students.

The change would encourage year-round attendance at all community colleges, accelerating completion rates for certificates and two-year degrees and using community college buildings and other resources more efficiently.

The Board of Regents’ financial aid work group also recommended increasing the annual income ceiling for OCOG recipients, from $75,000 to $96,162, or double Ohio’s median family income. But that change is prudent only if the state significantly increases OCOG funding. If it does not, expanding eligibility would divert inadequate aid from those students who need it most.

More than 80 percent of community college graduates work and live in their hometowns, said Jeffrey Ortega, spokesman for the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. Expanding financial aid to community college students is especially important in urban areas such as Toledo, with high numbers of disadvantaged young people who need affordable ways to train for good-paying jobs, or an accessible start to a four-year degree. Community college tuition costs average about $4,000 a year — roughly a third the expense of most public four-year schools.

Most good-paying jobs over the next decade will require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Ohio employers continue to grapple with a shortage of skilled workers. Community colleges could close the skills gap, if their students secure a fair share of the state’s financial aid. Opening OCOG to community college students who attend year-round is a good start.
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