Tuition rates at California's community college may be low compared to those elsewhere, but that should not permit legislators to ignore the difficulty so many students have paying, says one lobbying organization.
Tuesday, the California Public Interest Research Group  is releasing a report  detailing a survey, conducted during the past spring and summer semesters, of community college students across the state. Chiefly, students were asked about their “work habits, their understanding of financial aid and how these factors might affect their academic success.” The group hopes the rampant misconceptions about financial aid highlighted in the survey will influence state legislators to fund aid counseling programs to help students take full advantage of what is available.
“While California community college [tuitions] are the lowest in the nation — an accomplishment which we all can be proud of — they compromise only about 5 percent of the total cost of attendance,” the report reads. “The full cost of attendance that community college students must shoulder, including housing, food, and transportation, is much higher than the $780 that a typical full-time student pays in [tuition]. According to the California Student Aid Commission, total student costs for the nine-month 2009-10 academic year totaled $17,286 for a typical full-time community college student."
To determine how well students bear this cost burden, the survey asked three basic questions about financial aid; many students could not answer them correctly. Fifty-three percent responded incorrectly that they “have to go to school full time to be eligible for financial aid.” Additionally, just 50 percent knew that “taking more classes per term could increase their financial aid award.” Finally, 46 percent mistakenly thought that financial aid “could not be used to cover living expenses, or said that they did not know what it could be used for.”
More students answered all three of these questions incorrectly (13 percent) than answered all three correctly (10 percent). Forty-four percent of students, however, only answered one of these questions correctly.
Further survey responses seem to indicate that “understanding of financial aid and likelihood of applying for it are related.” Students who answered more of the previous questions about financial aid correctly were more likely to have applied for aid. Seventy percent of those students who answered all three questions correctly had applied for aid, while only 44 percent of those who did not answer any correctly had applied for aid.
In a further wrinkle, only half of the students surveyed who had their enrollment fees waived  by the California Community College Board of Governors also received Pell grants. The report notes that most students who meet the “income requirements [to qualify for the fee waiver] are likely to be eligible for federal grant aid.” It further suggests that most of these students only filled out a form for the fee waiver and did not complete the FAFSA.
Beyond grants, more than half of the students surveyed described loans as an option which “should only be considered as a last resort" or “as something that they would never consider under any circumstances.” Illustrating this point, 46 percent responded that, if they were in a class in which they could not afford textbooks, they would “prefer to push through without books or drop the class altogether rather than take out a student loan.” Also, of those who said they would consider loans, nearly as many responded that they would put their debt on a credit card as said that they would take out a federal loan.
“These data not only show that community college students tend to be debt averse, but also that those who do not consider borrowing may not have the information they need to make wise financial decisions, which may lead them to take on debt that is more expensive in the long term,” the report reads.
Finally, the survey found that the average student worked about 23 hours per week to help pay for his or her education. Less than a quarter of these working students reported that “they are balancing their work and studies well.” Also, more than a quarter said “they had to drop classes or whole semesters due to the number of hours they spend at their jobs.” The average student dropped 2.5 classes and 1.8 semesters because of work conflicts.
Saffron Zomer, author of the report and director of CALPIRG’s campus program, said she believes there is a general misconception about California’s community colleges that has driven some of the student behaviors chronicled in this report.
“When the general public in California talks about our community colleges, they typically only say that they have super-low fees or that they’re cheap and affordable institutions,” Zomer said. “People that have that mindset are not invested in the fact that our community colleges are not being properly funded. We actually think it’s important to get out there that these students work long hours, often don’t understand a lot about how financial aid works and need help.”
Zomer argues that, especially amidst the state’s massive budget shortfalls, “programs designed to counsel students and help them understand their financial aid options should be adequately funded.” She also recommends that the State Assembly increase funding for Cal Grants  -- debate this past summer saved the aid program from the chopping block, but didn't expand it. In the report, she writes, “we need to be discussing how to make Cal Grants more effective, not whether we can afford them at all.”
Though CALPIRG is currently not pushing any specific pieces of legislation, Zomer noted that her organization is sharing financial aid “horror stories” from students with state legislators to inform them of how some in their district are “struggling” to get through college. The group has started compiling these real-life accounts into a yearbook of sorts chronicling what it is like “to juggle class, job and family” in a project called “Getting to Graduation .”
“We’re collecting a set of these stories from students in every legislator’s district to put a personal face on this problem,” Zomer said. “We’re hoping to improve their understanding of these issues. Though there are not bills right now in the legislature, this is an important first step toward building support for this issue.”