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

Jun 13, 2011

This article first appeared June 13, 2011, in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

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

For these students, public benefits can be an important bridge to college success, especially among older, non-traditional students with families. Unfortunately, such students often don't know where to look. Educating students about the help that is available is an investment in their futures that will pay dividends for society.  

In search of an affordable path to postsecondary and economic success, 7.1 million students attend community colleges each year. But while tuition costs are significantly lower than those at four-year public institutions, other costs of attending community college - including basic living expenses, transportation, and textbooks - are still substantial. 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, the cost 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, 42.1 percent of students were over 24, and 23 percent were parents.

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

This is part of the reason why more than 80 percent of community college students combine school with part- or full-time work, often to cover their basic living expenses. While part-time jobs can help students with future employment, excessive work can interfere with school, leading to prolonged time to completion or even dropping out. Students who miss class to go to work are likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and get grades that reflect their poor attendance. But students who refuse work shifts that conflict with their classes may be fired, or simply find themselves scheduled for so few hours that they can't pay their bills. 

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

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

The problem remains, however, that many community college students are unaware of their potential eligibility for these programs, or how to apply for them. 

That's why some colleges and nonprofits are experimenting with providing help to students in accessing these programs. For example, Partners for a Hunger-free Oregon has publicized that certain students are eligible for SNAP benefits, and Portland State University includes information about SNAP on its website. In addition, Single Stop USA is partnering with several large community colleges to provide benefit screening for students on campus. In Massachusetts, the Crittenton Women's Union and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute put out a guide to benefit programs that college students may be eligible to receive. More colleges concerned with increasing their students' completion rates should consider such approaches.

When President Obama said in a national speech that "a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity-it is a pre-requisite," he wasn't telling the low-income workers of America anything that they didn't already know. They see it firsthand in paychecks that run out before the end of the month and the help-wanted ads that demand credentials they don't have. 

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

Public benefits and tax credits won't make it easier to return to a classroom desk after years away, but they can make the hours of work a little shorter, the kitchen cabinets more full, or the child care higher quality, all of which help students graduate sooner, and with better grades.

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