Making Them Pay

New America Foundation argues that regulations governing federal financial aid are keeping community college students from earning degrees faster.

February 18, 2015

Community college students should be able to afford to take two courses every spring, summer and fall semester, a new policy paper from New America argues, but a number of barriers -- especially surrounding financial aid -- “impede the flexibility” those students need to earn a degree.

In “Community College Online,” Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst with the foundation, suggests community college students would be able to speed up their time to degree completion if they could mix face-to-face, hybrid and fully online courses, courses that rely on seat time and courses that measure competencies. To achieve that kind of flexibility, Fishman presents a wish list of federal- and state-level policy changes.

“Information technology has the potential to support students through their degree paths and increase the number of courses a student takes per semester, hastening time to degree,” Fishman writes. “[Students] should not have to struggle through a system that was designed around a face-to-face education at a physical location.”

The paper comes at a time when community colleges leaders are wondering how to capitalize on the Obama administration’s interest in their institutions. While the administration estimates its plan to make community college free would cost $60 billion over the next decade, some community college experts have said the institutions need reforms that involve more than money to serve the millions of students who could benefit from the initiative.

At the same time, many community college leaders are concerned that the administration’s plans to rate institutions based on metrics such as completion and transfer rates could brand them as “low performing.” As Fishman’s paper points out, 64 percent of community college students who enrolled in 2006 didn’t earn a degree after 6 years. Among part-time students, that number was 82 percent.

To lower those percentages, Fishman writes, students need to take more courses -- two each during the spring, summer and fall semesters. But for many students, she adds, federal regulations governing financial aid make that an unaffordable proposal.

Nearly half of Fishman’s proposals therefore involve changing federal regulations to make financial aid less tied to semesters and time spent in the classroom. Those rules are a “relic” from when most students went directly to college after graduating high school and then took summers off, she writes. “That is not the reality for most students anymore, and especially not for community college students, who are more likely to be older, have part-time or full-time jobs, commute to school or take courses online.”

According to Fishman’s proposal, the federal government should offer year-round Pell Grants to help students pay for courses during the summer, as opposed to splitting the financial aid evenly between the fall and spring. (The foundation last month devoted a separate policy paper to that idea.) Financial aid officers should also be able to limit how much part-time students can take out in loans, thereby preventing students from hitting financial aid caps before they earn a degree.

"It's not that financial aid is necessarily a barrier to online learning and innovation, but our financial aid system is a barrier for increasing the flexibility in credit accumulation that could really meet the needs of 21st-century students," Fishman said in an e-mail. "Giving year-round financial aid to students does not mean all those students will necessarily be online, but it does allow them the flexibility to go online during the summer or winter intercession, for example."

In addition to proposing more flexible ways of distributing federal financial aid, Fishman suggests students should be free to spend the funds on whatever mix of courses they need, including face-to-face classes, competency-based education or courses that help them prepare for higher education.

"Allowing financial aid to flow to students who want to take both an online competency-based course and a face-to-face course is not possible in our current system even if it would benefit students and hasten time their time to degree," Fishman said in an e-mail. "If the system allows for financial aid to flow in this way, institutions would be less hindered in how and in what modality they offer their courses."

Adult students also should have more financial aid options beyond what the federal government offers, Fishman writes. State programs that only provide aid to students graduating high school could expand their eligibility requirements to include other groups of students, she suggests, and more community colleges could offer “emergency funding” for students to pay for unexpected car repairs or medical expenses. Even federal and state tax returns could be tweaked to automatically alert students to government benefit programs they qualify for, she writes.

Matt Reed, academic vice president at Holyoke Community College (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), said in his blog that the policy paper “offers plenty to build on,” and that Fishman’s suggestion to ease the restrictions on financial aid for competency-based education “makes sense on several levels.”

But Reed also questioned whether expanding existing grant programs and creating a new one specifically for community colleges -- two other proposals outlined in the policy paper -- is the best way to promote innovation among two-year institutions. Fishman makes those recommendations after pointing out that “there are no federal funding streams dedicated to innovation at community colleges, even though they educate the largest share of students in higher education.”

“Grants are great, and I’d heartily endorse a recommendation to make more of them, and a more varied set of them, realistically available to community colleges,” Reed wrote. “But the issue that kills so much innovation in the crib isn’t a lack of grants; it’s a shortage of operating funds.”

In an e-mail, Fishman acknowledged the resources required to make such reforms possible.

“Innovations like the ones featured in the report take time and money,” Fishman said. “With localities and states slashing the budgets of their higher ed institutions, it's often the community colleges who are the hardest hit. In many cases states are asking them to act innovative, while pulling the funding right out from beneath them.”

Giving community colleges more opportunities to compete for grants can give initiatives that help students an initial boost, Fishman added, “but it’s up to states and localities to ensure that these improvements are sustained through continued funding.”

Apart from recommendations strictly related to funding, the paper suggests ensuring that credits students earn at community colleges transfer to four-year institutions, giving faculty more professional development opportunities and promoting the creation and use of open educational resources. To learn more about the students taking blended courses and enrolling in competency-based education programs, the report also recommends the federal government collect more data through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS.

An event scheduled to be held in coordination with the release of the policy paper was postponed because of inclement weather in Washington.


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