Cost of Living, Not Tuition, Makes Community College Unaffordable, Says Report

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by Shilpa Banerji

Community college students in California cannot afford to attend college in spite of the low fees of the California Community College System, according to a new report released today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The report, “California Community Colleges: Making Them Stronger and More Affordable,” shows how community college fees represent less than 5 percent of total attendance costs for the typical community college student.

According to the report, non-fee costs — including books, housing and health care — have grown much more rapidly than the state’s general cost of living in recent years. For example, rental-housing costs grew 25 percent over the past five years in California, compared with an overall state inflation rate of 16 percent.

“For too long, California has assumed that keeping community college fees low will in itself provide students access to its two-year schools,” says Dr. William Zumeta, who co-authored the report with Deborah Frankle. “The truth is California is an expensive place to live and go to school.”

The report suggests that increasing financial aid is the “only effective way to deal with the non-fee costs that are the primary cause of affordability problems for California community college students, more of whom have very low incomes than is generally true in other states.”

The report also found that Cal Grants, the state’s largest student financial aid program, is not keeping pace with students’ financial needs, and has fallen far behind the overall growth of attendance costs. The maximum award has increased just 15 percent in the past 20 years. Only 15.5 percent of California community college students who were enrolled in 2003-2004 received federal Pell Grants, compared to 25.4 percent of similar students in other states, says the report.

“In today’s global economy, California’s community colleges are a crucial resource for the state’s economic competitiveness,” says Patrick Callan, president of NCPPHE. “As the primary access point to higher education for most low-income students and students from California’s rapidly growing populations of color, the community colleges must remain accessible and be provided with the incentives and resources to ensure higher rates of student success.”

Dr. Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr., a research professor at Arizona State University’s Hispanic Research Center, says it is a groundbreaking report.

“This report shows that total cost is much higher for students, many of whom can’t afford going to college,” he says. “On average, students have to work 15-20 hours a week [to pay their way through college,] and then it is difficult for them to do well. That’s why they are part-time students.”

Both de los Santos and Abdi Soltani, the executive director of The Campaign for College Opportunity, say an important solution is to get more students into the federal Pell Grant program. A bill working its way through the California Legislature would direct community colleges to inform students of federal and financial aid packages when they enroll and would force the schools to provide training and resources to help students apply for Pell Grants.

“In our state, we’ve assumed that community colleges are lower in costs, with a fee-waiver program, so we took it to mean that college is affordable,” says Soltani. “This report puts a good focus beyond the fees, which are substantially beyond the means of average students.”

To access the full report online, visit www.highereducation.org/reports/calcc/calcc.pdf

By Shilpa Banerji

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