Knocking down the small barriers

January 09, 2004|By Ronald A. Williams

IT'S NO SECRET that for those without means, financing a college education is becoming increasingly difficult. Rising tuition costs, budget cuts and limited need-based financial aid all serve as obstacles to students.

The federal Department of Education's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid reports that in this decade, 2 million college-qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates will not attend college because of "record-high financial barriers." For community colleges, whose primary mission is to provide students with open access to higher education, these trends present a major challenge.

But there are initiatives that can help us maintain our open access policy.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson has proposed a partnership between Prince George's Community College and the county to develop an annual revolving student loan fund for county students. I commend him.

When we think of student financial aid, we often think of loans running into the thousands of dollars. But what stands between a student and his or her education, especially at the community college level, is not always a four-figure sum. In some cases, relatively small amounts of money can pose financial hurdles.

To help bridge the gap for students with shortfalls of less than $1,000, we would like to establish a fund that would provide small loans to students. Loan repayments would return to the fund so that new loans can be made.

While community colleges continue to be a more affordable option than four-year institutions, they are also more likely to draw low-income students. Department of Education statistics show that 43 percent of students with annual family incomes less than $30,000 attend public two-year institutions, compared with 34 percent of students whose family incomes are more than $60,000.

Twice as many community college students have dependents as students at four-year institutions. The majority of community college students also work full time while attending school. At Prince George's Community College, part-time students account for 73 percent of our student body.

An American Association of Community Colleges survey of community college students in 2000 revealed that four out of the top five problems associated with taking college classes were financial -- personal financial problems, the cost of books, materials, computers and child care.

This finding is also reflected in a June 2003 survey of nonreturning Prince George's Community College students. They cited financial reasons as their chief reason for not returning to college in the fall following their spring enrollment.

On a positive note, the vast majority of students surveyed -- 76.7 percent -- indicated an intention to re-enroll at some point. Clearly, these are students who recognize the value of education. We must do all we can to support them.

Currently, in addition to grants, scholarships, federal loans and work programs, Prince George's Community College offers students a plan to defer tuition payment. The number of students enrolled in the plan rose by 11 percent last fall, indicating a growing need for flexible payment options. This year, we removed the regulation requiring a minimum tuition amount to qualify. This has allowed students to apply for deferred payment even for small amounts. Of the students enrolled in the plan in the fall, 65 percent deferred payment for amounts less than $1,000. The lowest amount deferred was $64.25. These figures highlight an area in which we might be able to assist.

The loan fund proposed by Mr. Johnson would help county students receive the high-quality education they deserve. This partnership would be part of a broader vision that recognizes higher education as the foundation of a better life for residents of this community. It would represent an innovative way to make the most of scarce resources and to help ensure that students are given as many opportunities as possible to succeed.

Ronald A. Williams is president of Prince George's Community College.

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