Report: Financial Struggles in Community College Go Beyond Tuition

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

The Institute for College Access & Success has released a report called “On The Verge: Costs and Tradeoffs Facing Community College Students” that compiles the shared experience of 12,000 community college students from 22 colleges throughout California and details the challenges posed by “non-tuition costs” of an education.

Those who enroll in community colleges often do so in the hope of receiving an affordable education. There is a growing body of research, however, that suggests low tuition is too often misunderstood as low total cost. In other words, it requires much more for students to stay in college rather than just a low-tuition.

Indeed, tuition composes only 20% of community college students’ total costs nationally. Even in California where community college tuition is the lowest in the nation, students struggle financially.

Beyond tuition, basic needs such as such as housing and food are part of the cost of a college education, and students need to cover the costs of transportation, textbooks, and supplies to attend class and study. Moreover, these financial obligations do not include unanticipated costs resulting from car repairs, medical bills, or other emergencies.

The report illustrates that even at the lowest tuition colleges, students cannot afford the costs required to obtain a college education. Six in ten students surveyed report having family incomes under $30,000, and 65% of the respondents who receive financial aid get less than $3,000 in grants and scholarships. Generally speaking, students at community colleges come from families with considerably lower incomes than their peers at public and nonprofit four-year colleges. However, they are much less likely to receive most forms of financial aid such as state and institutional grants, and some community colleges do not even offer loan programs.

Additionally, almost half (45%) of all respondents are the first person in their immediate family to attend college, and more than half (54%) have at least one parent born outside of the United States. Research shows that nearly half (47%) of these students, citing financial difficulties, will drop out of college without a credential.

Full-time students have at least 12 hours of classes per week, and, for every hour spent in class, students must spend an additional one to three hours studying and completing homework. These students are also working full-time to cover the costs of their living expenses. Thus, students who study full-time and work full-time are much less likely to graduate than those who limit their work hours while in school. When financial aid helps students cover costs beyond tuition, they are much more likely to graduate because they are able to devote more of their time to studying.

The researchers recommend that policymakers design financial aid packages that help students cover the cost of college beyond tuition, hold federal, state, and education authorities accountable for robust graduation rates and accessibility, and simplify institutions’ financial aid process.

Readers can access the full report online, which consists mostly of quotes from respondents organized into twelve different themes.