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College of Marin administrators are trying to lure low-income students to campus, particularly those who stopped out during the pandemic, by giving them $2,000 grants using federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The community college in Northern California plans to distribute the funds -- a total of at least $2 million -- to between 1,000 and 1,500 students who apply for the grants and enroll for credit or noncredit courses this upcoming fall. Priority will be given to students who are eligible for the Pell Grant or have little to no expected family contribution to help pay tuition. The money will be allotted in $1,000 disbursements in September and October.

The goal of the incentive program is to alleviate some of the financial burdens students continue to face during the pandemic and to encourage the return of the more than 400 students who left the college during the past academic year, said Jonathan Eldridge, assistant superintendent and vice president of student learning and success at Marin.

“This is a way for us to say, ‘We want you back,’” Eldridge said. “We also want to encourage students who maybe didn’t think college right now is affordable. And we want to help those students who are enrolled for the fall who are really tenuous in terms of their financial situation.”

The number of students in credit-bearing courses at the college fell by about 8.5 percent during the pandemic, Eldridge said. The college had 4,763 students pursuing degrees at the end of the fall 2019 term and 4,224 degree-seeking students in 2020, according to the college’s website. There were also 1,465 students taking noncredit courses in fall 2019 and 813 in fall 2020.

Marin officials started advertising the assistance program in early July and sent mailings about it to students who stopped out during the pandemic. Student ambassadors have also been calling and texting eligible students to make them aware of the program and add a “personal touch” to the outreach efforts.

The college received more than $3 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan, the third round of federal COVID-19 relief funding. Campus leaders wanted to target low-income students and focus on quickly “getting a legitimate amount of money in their pockets that really will make a difference so that they can continue on and work toward their degree and transfer,” Eldridge said.

Audrey Dow, senior vice president for the California-based College Campaign for Opportunity, an advocacy organization dedicated to expanding college access and increasing completion, said student surveys show that one-time grants, even just $500, can give students some “security and the knowledge that they can handle their finances and re-enroll.” She believes Marin's $2,000 grants have the potential to be a “lifeline” for students.

Marin students will be able to spend their grant money on educational expenses, including rent, medical care, food, car repairs and other costs related to attending college. Such nontuition costs are often overlooked but can pose major financial obstacles to re-enrollment​ and impede college completion. Tuition within the California Community College system is relatively low. It costs $552 for a full semester's course load, and enrollment fees for nearly half of community college students in the state are covered through the California College Promise Grant, according to the system’s website.

Eldridge noted, however, that the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is especially high.

Students may want to attend full-time, but “they can’t afford to reduce their work hours and still make rent and car payments and help with their family expenses,” he said. “This aid will help offset that.”

Dow said community colleges across the state have been developing incentives and outreach efforts to make it easier for students to return to campus after enrollment declines at community colleges nationwide. In particular, she’s seen California community colleges identifying and actively reaching out to students who left during the pandemic and offering counseling services to help them re-enroll and to ensure they know what academic and financial aid supports are available.

California Community Colleges over all experienced a 12 percent enrollment decrease from fall 2019 to fall 2020, a loss of 186,688 students. Dow noted that California community college students are more often working adult learners and parents compared to students in the state’s four-year institutions, so they were particularly hard-hit by the economic downturn.

“So many students lost their jobs,” she said. “So many students lost family members, and their financial stability was really compromised -- and in many ways continues to be compromised moving forward because of COVID. It’s really smart that community colleges are thinking about the reality that everything is not back to normal and students may need the financial incentive or additional financial support to go back to college.”

The initiative at College of Marin also echoes efforts across the country to recruit students and ease the financial burden of enrolling at community colleges this summer and fall. Community colleges have been offering incentives such as free summer courses, laptops and textbooks to draw first-time students and entice students who left back to campus.

Leanne Davis, associate director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the influx of federal relief funds has allowed community colleges to take a variety of approaches to lighten students’ financial loads and help them complete their studies.

“The institutions often know what’s right for their students, and the same thing isn’t necessarily going to work at every single institution of higher education,” she said. “Student populations are unique. Institutions are making a lot of big decisions about what their students need and what they need to do to help their students succeed.”

She believes one-off stimulus funds won’t solve deeper retention problems within higher education, but these initiatives can be a “springboard” for longer-term solutions to keep low-income students enrolled.

“It's a great launchpad,” she said.

Dow, of the College Campaign for Opportunity, hopes that the grants offered by College of Marin and other student support initiatives fueled by COVID-19 relief funds will show California lawmakers the value of funneling more funding toward community colleges. She noted that the majority of California college students attend community colleges, but the system receives less state funding than the California State University and University of California systems.

Students “are still in need of significant resources to be able to go to college and thrive,” she said. “My hope is that we, California, are inspired by this influx of resources and hopefully the corresponding enrollment jumps and retention jumps … and really continue to think about reforming our own Cal Grant system and equitize the financial distribution between community colleges and their four-year peers.”

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