It's all how you do the math.
If a student at a California community college enrolls full time, tuition is $624 a year. (California community colleges are very much on the low end of the tuition scale.) Enroll half time, and the cost is $312. But leaders of California's community colleges are trying to promote a different kind of calculation. A student with minimal income or family wealth (the norm for many of the state's community colleges) could qualify for only a $2,775 Pell Grant if enrolled part time, but a $5,550 grant if enrolled full time. Pell Grants may be used for a range of student expenses, not just tuition. So such a student would end up with more money for life expenses by enrolling full time.
The California Community Colleges chancellor’s office hopes that by showing its students this  illustration of how much financial aid they leave on the table by attending part time, it can encourage more of them to enroll full time.
Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, discussed the strategy, which is part of a larger effort to improve persistence and graduation rates in the state’s community colleges, in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed. He said he got the idea from a successful initiative pioneered by the Connecticut Community Colleges a decade ago. And it only involves a subtle change in the way aid is packaged for students.
Here’s how it works: instead of first asking students how many credits they think they will carry, financial aid officers create aid packages on the assumption that students are attending full time. While many students assume college will be more affordable if they attend part time, attending full time may be more financial viable than they realize. And rather than hope that students figure this out, the colleges will make this point directly.
There were about 1.8 million community college students in California in the fall of 2009. Around 61 percent of them attended part time, 29 percent of them attended full time and 10 percent were non-credit students, considered neither part nor full time. In 2008-09, 33.4 percent of the California community college students who received Pell Grants attended full time. That proportion increased to 39.8 percent in 2009-10 — a period during which some of the colleges have been trying this approach.
Scott said he believes that showing students the money they may be leaving on the table will make a lasting impression about the value of full-time attendance. The benefits are numerous, he said, and include the fact that full-time students are more likely to complete college. Scott is encouraging the development of a statewide system that would help financial aid officers at the state’s 112 community colleges show their students this financial advantage in black and white.
Terri Carbaugh, the chancellor’s spokeswoman, said that, according to a recent survey of the state’s financial aid officers, 83 percent of them engage all students seeking financial aid by calculating awards based on full-time enrollment first, before hearing their intent, to show the net cost difference. Though she did not know the base from which it grew, she said the chancellor’s staff believes this percentage is a significant increase over past use of this practice. Ideally, she said, the chancellor wants all of the state’s community colleges to adopt it.
“It’s a very subtle difference in the method of packaging aid,” Carbaugh said. “But it’s effective. We think it can help us start to move the needle and help students understand that the more units they carry, the more aid they’ll draw down.”
Carbaugh noted that the chancellor’s office is testing a public awareness campaign with the simple message: “Enroll full time. Get more aid.” But, she said, this message does not always resonate with every student.
“It’s easier to convince an 18-24 year old to enroll full time than it is an adult who is recently unemployed,” Carbaugh said. “It’s a harder sell for older students. They are open to enrolling full time, but they want more information. The burden then shifts to the system to prove the assertion that going to school full time can be cost-saving in the long run.”
The chancellor's office will unveil a new website showing these sliding scale financial aid and net cost differentials, based on enrollment status and area of the state, in two weeks. This tool, Carbaugh said, could help encourage more adult students to attend full time.
Success in Connecticut
California got the idea for this different sales pitch from the Connecticut Community Colleges. When the 12 colleges in that system centralized their financial aid services under the system office in 2001, said Mary Anne Cox, the system’s assistant chancellor, one of the strategies made commonplace at all of the institutions was encouraging full-time enrollment with aid money.
Cox explained that the system’s centralized database helps package aid in such a way as to show students how much money they could be losing by attending part time.
“We’re showing them that they can support their education financially beyond what they originally thought,” Cox said. “It’s encouragement.”
The system’s efforts have resulted in some significant enrollment changes. Cox noted that the system’s overall headcount has grown by 42 percent since 2000-01, but its full-time enrollment has grown by 101 percent.
Also, since the changes in 2001, the number of students applying for and receiving aid has more than doubled. In 2008-09, about 63 percent of the system’s students applied for aid, compared to 42.5 percent of community college students nationally. Cox noted that most of this increase comes from full-time students.