The student loan industry has historically focused on students at four-year institutions, since community colleges tend to have low tuition rates and their students have less need to borrow.
That is starting to change. Sallie Mae is today announcing a major campaign in which it will offer two new loan programs for students at community colleges, and a set of financial services for the institutions themselves. Sallie Mae will also be pushing the new programs at the American Association of Community Colleges meeting, which starts tomorrow in Boston.
Officials of the company say that the new loan programs were designed to make up for gaps in traditional loan programs, and to reflect changes in community college costs. Even though community colleges remain much less expensive than other sectors of higher education, many two-year institutions have differential tuitions in which selected programs can cost more than twice the base tuition rates, and students in those programs in particular may need more sources of funds.
The Community College Education Loan  is one of the new loan programs. It is for credit-worthy students only (although they may apply with a co-signer), and may be used only for costs that remain after a student has used a Stafford Loan and any grants that are available. There is a $1,000 minimum loan and the interest rate is variable -- determined in part by credit history -- and starting at the Prime Rate +1.
In an interview, Dennis K. Wentworth, senior vice president for national sales at Sallie Mae, said, "We've been hearing from community colleges that more students are looking for gap financing," when existing sources of funds don't quite balance their books.
Wentworth said he expected the new program to be attractive to those at more expensive community colleges, and that Sallie Mae expects to make more than $50 million in such loans in the next academic year. He said that aid directors have told him that some of their students now are taking out consumer loans or using credit card debt to cover costs -- both approaches that are more expensive to the borrower.
A similar new program -- the Continuing Education Loan  -- while not specifically for community college students, is for non-degree students, many of whom are enrolled at two-year institutions.
Michael J. Bennett, director of financial aid at Brookdale Community College, in New Jersey, said the new programs made sense because they were designed for "specific needs." He said that most students do not need to borrow beyond federal programs, but he said there is need for the groups of students that are Sallie Mae's target audiences.
The majority of degrees at Bennett's college would cost a total of $8,000 for tuition, fees and books, he said, but some -- such as a culinary program -- cost $20,000.
Carol Mowbray, director of financial aid at Northern Virginia Community College, said she thought there would be the most demand in non-degree programs, which are increasing in popularity and expense. Many programs in technology fields, she said, involve several courses that cost in the range of $500, and for which students cannot take out Stafford loans.
The American Association of Community Colleges has generally been skeptical about borrowing by students at two-year colleges, and is in fact seeking federal authority for colleges to reduce loan maximums under federal programs when appropriate. David Baime, vice president for government relations for the group, said, "Our association has always taken the position that loans are a last resort," but he also said that it was clear that "there is an open market for our students."
Jacqueline E. King, who analyzes student loan issues for the American Council on Education, said that Sallie Mae's move was interesting because it comes at a time that more community college students are borrowing. Among full-time community college students (a minority of students, but a group that King said may make likely borrowers), the percentage who borrow to pay for college increased from 17.5 percent to 22.8 percent between 1999-2000 and 2003-4, she said, citing federal data.
King said that community colleges have been "pretty picky" about which students they encourage to borrow, and appropriately so. She said that the success of the program (educationally) will depend on whether the right students are steered to it.
"If you are using loans to hasten your time to degree, and if you are in a field where the job market is strong, it can make a lot of sense to borrow, rather than taking the extra time out of the job market," she said.