In the recession’s wake, Ohio began earmarking money from its dwindling need-based financial aid program to students in specific sectors of higher education, including for-profits and private nonprofit colleges. But in a move critics call unfair and even discriminatory, community college students got the boot.
The state’s Board of Regents in 2009 decided as a matter of policy that federal Pell Grants “should cover tuition and general fees at all community colleges.” As a result, students who attend public two-year institutions are no longer eligible  to receive state-based financial aid from the Ohio College Opportunity Grant.
The problem, say community college leaders in the state, is that students have expenses beyond tuition. Many community college students are low-income and struggle to pay for books, child care and transportation.
Before 2009 community college students were eligible for a maximum state grant of $2,500. More than 20,000 received a total of $20 million in annual state aid. Now they get nothing.
“We’ve been trying to recover this ever since,” said Karen E. Rafinski, interim president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges and the former president of Clark State Community College.
Students enrolled in two-year degree programs at regional campuses of the state’s four-year institutions also lost their state-aid eligibility in 2009. So did those who attended for-profit institutions in Ohio. But that changed last year, as the state began slowly rebuilding its aid program.
For the first time Ohio began earmarking aid funds toward individual sectors, rather than as an overall pot of money. Private and public four-year institutions will each get $41 million of the total $88 million budgeted for the fund for each of the next two years.
The rest of the money will go to students at for-profits.
The state restored for-profit institutions’ eligibility last year, with a $2.2 million annual allocation. But a line item in the budget added $6 million more, with the funds coming from casino licensing fees.
That means students who are enrolled in two-year degree programs (as well as four-year programs) at for-profits can now qualify for aid. And for-profits are receiving money from Ohio’s state aid programs while their direct competitors in the public sector cannot.
Not surprisingly, that rankles Ohio’s community college leaders. When asked how for-profits got back into the program, Rafinski said: “It’s a huge lobbying group.”
The two-year sector’s complaints are starting to get the attention of lawmakers  and newspaper editorial boards . For example, the Toledo Blade recently wrote  that the 180,000 students at the state’s community colleges are being treated like “second-class citizens.”
Less Aid, Bigger Loans
Ohio’s spending on need-based aid bottomed-out at $75 million in 2011. That was down from a high of $183 million in 2008. The collapse of the state’s economy drove the cuts.
The resulting impact on students has been “dramatic," according to a recently released report  from Community Research Partners, an Ohio-based nonprofit research group
“A predictable outcome of the decrease in college grants available to Ohio students is an increase in student loans and debt,” the report said.
For example, traditional-age students at community college have taken out an average of $760 more in federal loans after the recession, according to the analysis. Adult students’ borrowing increased even more, by an average $956.
Maximum state-aid award amounts are down across the board. For example, students at private nonprofits could get up to $5,000 per year in 2009. Now their maximum grant is $2,080.
Likewise, students at for-profits could get up to $4,000 before the recession. The maximum amount is only $664 this year. But the grants are growing – last year students at for-profits could only receive up to $480.
And something is better than nothing, say community college advocates.
Lower-income students have also been disproportionately hit by the eligibility change, according to the Community Research Partners report, because community colleges serve the bulk of those students.
"The students who enroll in lower-priced public two-year institutions are the most price sensitive," the report said. "This is particularly the case for low-income and minority students."
Ohio appears poised to continue increasing aid amounts. “We’ve built it back up,” Rafinski said. “The state’s in pretty good shape.”
Rafinski’s association is pushing a legislative fix to get the sector’s students back in the aid program. One proposal is a pot of $20 million that would go to community college students in high-demand fields, like nursing or training for first responders. The plan calls for maximum annual awards of $2,000.
Community colleges have also tried to add performance incentives to the proposed fund. That’s so the idea is in keeping with the national college completion push and the state’s broad move to performance-based funding.
For example, Rafinski said, students might qualify for only one-third of the state-grant amount when they first enroll. Students could receive the rest of the balance after successfully completing their coursework for a semester.
“This level of investment will, in return, support more than 20,000 community college students,” the association said in a document it has been circulating, adding that “this performance-based workforce grant along with the performance-based funding model for higher education truly places Ohio as a national leader in fostering a success-driven higher education system.”
Last month the chairman of a key education committee of the state Legislature signaled that he might support the idea of creating an aid program for community college students.
“When we’re talking workforce, community colleges are really the ones out there that are quickly adapting to workforce demands,” said Rep. Cliff Ronseberger, a Republican, in an interview with the Congwer News Service.