From the Community College Times, Washington, DC.
By Tabitha Whissemore, Published November 21, 2013
Community college students in Ohio are paying the price for the decline in state need-based aid.
The Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) provides financial assistance to low-income students at state colleges and universities, but that funding hasn’t reached community college students since 2009. During budget cuts that year, Ohio cut the OCOG in half, from $358 million to $171 million, and changed the requirements so that federal Pell Grants would first be applied before a student could receive OCOG funding.
That change eliminated the opportunity for community college students to benefit from OCOG. Pell Grants cover two-year college tuition and fees, but many students relied on the state grants for college-related living expenses, such as books and transportation. About 20,000 students were affected by this change.
“It’s forced students to either take out loans or not complete,” said Karen Rafinski, interim president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges (OACC).
At Stark State College, students are “wondering why they can’t have the same help” as students at other institutions, said President Para Jones. Eighty-six percent of Stark State students work while in college—most of them in low-paying jobs.
“For a lot of our working poor students, OCOG funds are critical,” Jones said.
It would cost about $20 million to restore the funding to serve students who would have previously been eligible for the grant, according to OACC. Community college advocates are encouraging state leaders to set aside some of an expected $400 million in Medicaid savings for OCOG and other higher education programs.
With the state in a better place financially, it’s an opportune time to look at “fairness and equity,” Rafinski said.
That’s a tough sell, as some state leaders want to see the money offset taxes. In addition, there has been significant turnover in the Ohio house and senate over the past four years, and many new lawmakers don’t know the history of the OCOG or the students it has served. That prompted OACC and member colleges to lead a campaign to inform politicians and others about two-year colleges and their students.
Spreading the word
In September, Jones and others spoke before the house’s Higher Education Reform Study Committee about the importance of OCOG funding. Over the summer, members of that committee toured the state, hearing from college administrators, students, and other stakeholders about a variety of higher education topics, including OCOG.
“Colleges have done a wonderful job educating us about the detrimental effects this has had,” said Rep. Michael Stinziano, who took office in 2011 and serves on the committee.
Community college students typically have “different circumstances” than many four-year college students, and in general have a greater need for such aid, Stinziano said.
There is also an economic argument for offering the state grants to community college students. They tend to stay in the community after graduation and fill many of the local skilled job vacancies—adding to the revenue and tax base, according to advocates.