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Bridging the financial aid gap for community college students

A new report from the College Board's new Advocacy and Policy Center offers a number of recommendations to help states and college systems get more federal financial aid in the pockets of community college students.

Flickr photo by Art Pets Photography

Nationally, about 40 percent of community college students who are eligible for federal financial aid don't apply – meaning they miss out on millions of dollars in grants and loans each year. By comparison, about a quarter of four-year university students who are eligible fail to apply.

A recent report from the Institute for College Access and Success found that California Community College students are leaving up to $500 million in federal aid on the table, according to the most recent data available. That's around half a million community college students in the state who were likely eligible for federal or institutional grant aid but did not apply for it.

The application entails filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Studies that have looked at reasons why community college students underutilize federal aid have found that these students sometimes distrust government agencies that ask for personal financial information. They may also lack a basic understanding of financial planning for education. Adult students may take classes at night, making it harder to get to an on-campus financial aid counselor.

Research shows some needy students who don't receive aid make choices that affect their ability to finish school. A student may go to school part time to save money or work more than 20 hours a week while going to school full time – both factors that research has shown reduces the chances of successfully completing a degree.

The College Board's report provides a few ideas for what colleges can do in the short-term to help students capture the money they're eligible for. Of course, some of the long-term solutions would require federal and statewide policy changes.

A few of the ideas for colleges: Create bilingual services and materials. Offer evening and weekend office hours. Partner with other education institutions or community organizations to offer financial aid counseling to all students, the report says.

In California, the community colleges have less money to pay for financial advising. They have $40 per student to conduct outreach, provide information and assistance, and help students complete the FAFSA, compared to $77 per student at the CSU and $165 at the UC, according to a report from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.

Some programs in California get props from the College Board. The Puente Project places counselors in 34 high schools and 58 community colleges in the state. The counselors help students and parents with financial aid applications. The report also points to California's "I Can Afford College" program as a positive step.

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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