Financial aid lags at community colleges

RALEIGH, N.C. — Financial support for students at North Carolina community colleges needs to be strengthened, a new study says.

The North Carolina Community College system ranks third-lowest in a national survey measuring the percentage of community-college students who have access to federal student loans, says a report released by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Only 23 of the 58 colleges in the system provide students with access to all of the need-based, low-interest loans offered by the federal government.

Tuition and fees are relatively low at community colleges, averaging $1,344 a year. And among the 57 percent of students who already receive financial aid, many do not qualify for Pell Grants, the federal loan program for the neediest students in the U.S.

This often leads to the perception that community-college students are not as needy as some of their public-university counterparts, the report says.

Yet tuition and fees are only a small part of the cost to community-college students of attending school.

“Financial-aid programs often are designed for traditional college students who are financially dependent on their parents, live in a dormitory and go directly from high school to college,” Sam Watts, a policy analyst for the center and author of the study, says in a statement.

“But aid programs for community-college students must address the reality that they are older, supporting families, working or may be between jobs,” he says.

Total expenses for community-college students who do not live with their parents average $15,600 a year, the report says.

And many do not qualify for certain loan programs because they work, earning too much money to get assistance, but too little to afford school.

The state funds three separate, need-based aid programs for community colleges, state-run and private universities.

The UNC system receives $58.1 million a year, or $1,712 per student, and private colleges get $35.1 million, $2,419 per student.

The report says state funding for community colleges, currently drawn from government accounts of “abandoned and unclaimed” money, has “fallen behind” in comparison.

Community colleges receive a total allocation of $10.5 million, or an average of $827 per student.

Additional funding from a more sustainable source is a must, says the report, which recommends the state raise the maximum grant available to community-college students to $1,250 a year.

State authorities also should initiate a program to help all colleges participate in federal-loan programs, and should appropriate an extra $2.1 million to make child care available to the 1,400 eligible community-college students currently not being served, the report says.

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