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Working Too Hard to Make the Grade
Higher Education is the cornerstone of the modern American dream, and college graduates are the engine of California’s economy. Our commitment to equity and our future economic success require that we make higher education accessible to all Californians, and that our students succeed academically and graduate. The community college system plays a key role in California’s ability to meet these goals, educating six out of every ten college students in the state and opening their doors to students of every type. It is therefore deeply concerning that, of all community college students who intend to complete an associate’s degree, or transfer to a four-year school, only 24 percent achieve their goal within six years.
One of the factors contributing to this low success rate is the number of hours that students work at their jobs. While community college is generally perceived as being the low-cost college option—and the system has been able to keep its fees extremely low—fees are only a small fraction of the full cost of attendance for a community college student. To cover their costs, students work long hours, negatively affecting their academic performance. At the same time, existing sources of aid are being underutilized. CALPIRG surveyed 2,679 students on campuses across the state to find out more about students’ work habits, their understanding of financial aid and how these factors might affect their academic success.
Many students have basic misunderstandings about financial aid
Our survey asked three basic questions about financial aid to ascertain whether students knew that part-time students are eligible for financial aid, that financial aid awards are related to the number of courses taken, and that financial aid can be used to cover all educational costs, including living expenses. Approximately half of the responses to each question were incorrect. The largest share of students (44 percent) got only one question right. More students got all three questions wrong (13 percent) than answered all three correctly (10 percent).
Students who know more about financial aid are more likely to have applied for it
Overall, students who knew basic facts about financial aid were more likely to have applied for aid. Of the students who told us that they did not apply for financial aid, less than 2 percent answered all three questions correctly. Students can only apply for financial aid if they know it is available, and they are less likely to apply if they believe that they are ineligible. Since students generally believe that financial aid requirements are more restrictive than they actually are, educating students about financial aid should encourage more of them to apply.
Community college students are reluctant to borrow to help pay for their education
When asked about student loans, over half (57 percent) of the students surveyed described loans as either “not a good option” that should only be considered as a last resort, or as something they would not consider under any circumstances. When asked how they would approach a class for which they did not currently have money to buy textbooks, nearly half of the students surveyed (46 percent) said they would prefer to do without books or drop the class rather than take out a student loan. Of students who would consider a loan, almost as many of them would pay for textbooks with a credit card (23 percent) as would take out a federal student loan (26 percent).
Students’ long work hours hurt their education
Employed students in our survey work an average of 23 hours per week. Students who reported that their work hours kept them from taking more classes or studying more work an average of 25 hours per week. Out of all survey respondents, less than one quarter said that they are balancing their work and studies well.
* Delaying graduation
Two-thirds of students surveyed said the number of hours that they worked prevented them from taking more college classes. Slightly more than one-quarter of all respondents reported that they had to drop classes or whole semesters due to the number of hours they spend at their jobs.
* Reducing student success
Three-quarters of respondents told us that they may or definitely would spend more time studying for their current classes if they did not have to work so much.
* Reducing student engagement
Nearly three-quarters of the students we surveyed said that they may or definitely would be more involved on their campuses if they did not have to work so much. Whether this time would be spent meeting with tutors, counselors, or participating in extra-curricular campus activities, it is well known that students who are involved on their campus are more engaged in their education and perform better academically. Participation in student government, sports and recreation, community service opportunities, and student clubs and organizations all can be beneficial to students’ academic success.
While our findings are troubling, there are concrete steps that could immediately begin to rectify the problems identified:
1)Financial aid offices should continue their outreach work to students, and ensure that they are including information about financial aid eligibility, such as that part-time students qualify for aid, as well as what costs aid can cover. Providing basic information about federal student loans and different types of debt can also be useful for students.
2)Programs designed to counsel students and help them understand and apply for financial aid should be adequately funded.
3)Financial aid offices should prioritize the FAFSA over the BOG Waiver (BOGW), and help all students who need assistance to fill out the FAFSA application. Submitting a FAFSA allows students to access many different types of aid including the federal Pell Grant, and will allow more students to receive the BOGW as there is a higher income threshold for receiving it through the FAFSA. The BOGW should continue to be available to those students for whom it is appropriate.
4)Policy makers and the public must understand what a crucial investment state financial aid programs really are, and fund them at levels that enable students to go to college and graduate successfully.
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