July 24, 2008

Financial Aid Limits Can Be Roadblock

By Mary Beth Marklein

Community colleges pride themselves on being the best bargains in higher education, yet affordability remains a barrier for many low- and moderate-income students.

Tuition, though it's rising faster than inflation, isn't the main culprit. At $2,361, last year's average community college cost was just 38% of what public four-year universities charged, says the non-profit College Board, which tracks annual tuition increases. Bigger factors:

*Costs related to going to college. The College Board says the average budget for community college undergraduates last year was $13,126, and more than 80% went toward transportation, books and supplies, room and board and other expenses such as child care.

*Financial aid eligibility. State and federal aid tends to be geared toward full-time, traditional college students, says Amy-Ellen Duke of the non-profit Center for Law & Social Policy in Washington. And most community college students don't qualify for federal tax credits and deductions, which generally benefit higher-income families attending high-tuition schools.

*Awareness of aid. A recent study by the non-profit Project on Student Debt found that two-thirds of community college students don't apply for financial aid, about twice as many as students at public and private universities. A report released in May by the federal Student Advisory Committee for Financial Assistance says reasons vary, but many students "just don't think they qualify, or they're intimidated" by the process, says David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The federal advisory committee is exploring how to encourage more students to apply and plans to report findings this fall. A federal financial aid law enacted last year could ease some of the burden on working students. And some states, including Illinois, Maryland and North Carolina, have improved efforts to help community college students access aid.

A report in May by the federal advisory committee projects a lack of money will prevent up to 3.2 million college-qualified high school graduates from earning a bachelor's degree. Low-income students -- and especially those who start at two-year schools -- are most at risk. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>