Spotlight Exclusives

The Cost of Learning: How Public Benefits Create Pathways to Education

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Many people have an idyllic image of collegeas a time of freedom and exploration, with few responsibilities. Yet more andmore students, especially in community colleges, are older, with adultresponsibilities, and adult concerns. Many of them are low-income.

For these students, public benefits can be animportant bridge to college success, especially among older, non-traditionalstudents with families. Unfortunately, such students often don۪t know where tolook. Educating students about the help that is available is an investment intheir futures that will pay dividends for society.  

In search of an affordable path topostsecondary and economic success, 7.1 million students attend communitycolleges each year. But while tuition costs are significantly lower than thoseat four-year public institutions, other costs of attending community college including basic living expenses, transportation, and textbooks are stillsubstantial. In 2010-11, a year at a community college was estimated to cost$14,637, compared to $20,339 for the average undergraduate at a public,four-year university.

For students who are supporting families, thecost is even higher, as housing, food, and child care costs add to the total.Once a rarity, these students are becoming increasingly common. In 2009, 42.1percent of students were over 24, and 23 percent were parents.

Financial aid can help to cover costs, butcommunity college students receive comparatively little financial support, and theiroverall burden is high. In addition, financial aid policies often are writtenwith younger students in mind, some of whom can depend on their own parents foreconomic support. After accounting for available financial aid, a greater shareof community college students still have unmet need (80 percent) than didpublic four-year college students (54 percent). The average full-time communitycollege student is projected to have more than $6,000 in unmet need in 2010-2011.

This is part of the reason why more than 80percent of community college students combine school with part- or full-timework, often to cover their basic living expenses. While part-time jobs can helpstudents with future employment, excessive work can interfere with school,leading to prolonged time to completion or even dropping out. Students who missclass to go to work are likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and getgrades that reflect their poor attendance. But students who refuse work shiftsthat conflict with their classes may be fired, or simply find themselvesscheduled for so few hours that they can۪t pay their bills. 

By applying for public benefits andrefundable tax credits, low-income students can fill the gap between financialaid and the resources needed to attend college. Students who are parents may beeligible for cash and nutritional assistance, child care subsidies, publichealth insurance, and tax credits, although the details vary by state. 

Students who are not parents are generally eligiblefor fewer benefits, but may receive support from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and tax credits. This help can allow students tocomplete their studies successfully and swiftly, and move into good jobs, sothey will be less likely to need such supports in the future.

The problem remains, however, that manycommunity college students are unaware of their potential eligibility for theseprograms, or how to apply for them. 

That۪s why some colleges and nonprofits areexperimenting with providing help to students in accessing these programs. Forexample, Partners for a Hunger-free Oregon has publicized that certain studentsare eligible for SNAP benefits, and Portland State University includesinformation about SNAP on its website. In addition, Single Stop USA ispartnering with several large community colleges to provide benefit screeningfor students on campus. In Massachusetts, the Crittenton Women۪s Union and theMassachusetts Law Reform Institute put out a guideto benefit programs that college students may be eligible to receive. Morecolleges concerned with increasing their students۪ completion rates shouldconsider such approaches.

When President Obama said in a nationalspeech that “a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunityit isa pre-requisite,” he wasn۪t telling the low-income workers of America anythingthat they didn۪t already know. They see it firsthand in paychecks that run outbefore the end of the month and the help-wanted ads that demand credentialsthey don۪t have. 

Millions of them are answering the call,getting their children up before dark, working all day, racing to class aftertheir shifts, studying on the bus home, falling asleep over their books, and thengetting up the next day to do it all again. 

Public benefits and tax credits won۪t make iteasier to return to a classroom desk after years away, but they can make the hoursof work a little shorter, the kitchen cabinets more full, or the child carehigher quality, all of which help students graduate sooner, and with bettergrades. 

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

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