By Denise Dick
Since 2009, Ohio’s community-college students have been ineligible for need-based state aid, and they remain the only higher-education sector that’s still ineligible.
The Ohio Association of Community Colleges wants to change that.
The association recommends reinstatement of the Ohio College Opportunity Grants for financially disadvantaged community-college students by establishing a $1,000 per semester performance- based workforce grant. The grant would be for up to $2,000 per academic year.
Cuts were made to needs-based aid across the board in 2009 because of the economic recession, but the sectors have since been added back in, including private and proprietary colleges.
“Obviously, we think that’s wrong,” said Jeff Ortega, association spokesman. “These students are taxpayers. These students are voters, and we think it’s a matter of fairness and equity.”
A January report by Community Research Partners, a Columbus-based nonprofit research center, the cuts made a dramatic impact on low-income students.
As a result of the state cuts, the Ohio Board of Regents opted to apply Pell Grants first for OCOG allocation.
Pell Grants cover the cost of tuition and fees at community colleges, meaning the OCOG was no longer available for those students.
“Students who attended a two-year Ohio public institution in the 2008-09 academic year could have received as much as $2,500 in state aid in addition to a Pell Grant or other grant,” the CRP report says. “Just one year later, they were not eligible for any state aid. Students seeking shorter-term career/technical training can now only receive an OCOG grant if they attend a proprietary school.”
Those proprietary (for-profit) schools have much higher tuitions and loan-default rates than public two-year institutions, according to CRP’s report.
It says that the state is on it way to recovery from the financial crisis but now faces new challenges: “not enough educated and skilled workers to meet the needs of employers who are looking to grow jobs in Ohio.”
Laura Meeks, Eastern Gateway Community College president, said the first crisis seen at that college in the wake of the change was students not being able to afford their books.
“They had enough for tuition and for fees with the Pell Grant, but they didn’t have enough for their books,” Meeks said.
To address that, James Baber, executive vice president for academic and student affairs, started a book-loan program out of his office. A similar effort was launched through the office of Dante Zambrini, vice president for operations at Eastern Gateway’s Valley Center.
“We never have enough books to go around,” Meeks said.
A student taking a class and not having the accompanying textbook is a recipe for disaster, she said.
“Community colleges are good team players,” Meeks said. “We realize the state didn’t have funding, but we also have to be advocates for our students. Our students need OCOG.”
Ann Koon, Eastern Gateway spokeswoman, estimated that between 80 and 85 percent of the college’s students work either full or part time to meet costs. Besides tuition, fees and books, they must pay for transportation, living expenses and often child care while pursuing their degrees.
“At four-year institutions part of financial aid covers room and board,” she said.
Students at community colleges have living expenses as well.
“Most of our students are first-generation college students,” Koon said. “They’re not necessarily from the strongest economic background.”
Ortega said the OACC advocates restoration of OCOG funding for community-college students in the state budget at an estimated cost of $20 million per year. The grants would be performance-based.
A community-college student would receive a third of the grant amount at the beginning of the semester with the remaining two-thirds awarded when course work is completed. It may be prorated to reflect the percentage of courses completed.