The Democrats’ spendathon working its way to President Biden’s desk contains no money for “free” community college.
As a big supporter of community college, especially College of The Albemarle, you might expect me to be upset.
Many of us who work or volunteer in the community college system are not sure that “free” community college will be cheap enough to attract more students.
Truth is, it can be hard to give away money for higher education around here.
Pell Grants are a gift from the U.S. taxpayer; no repayment is necessary. These $6,495 annual stipends are generally available to students below the national median household income of $63,000 and will cover most of the cost of a two-year degree. Democrats have proposed increasing this to $7,045.
North Carolina students left $89 million of Pell Grant money unclaimed in 2019, part of more than $2 billion in Pell money left on the table nationwide.
The Biden Administration extended a moratorium on repayment of student loans that will last more than two years when it expires in May 2022. This is costing taxpayers $5 billion a month in foregone interest and principal payments. It has yet to move the needle on college enrollment.
COA staff have sometimes struggled to match students with available scholarships. One recent year 20 percent of COA’s scholarships went unclaimed.
The COA Foundation instituted a GAP Scholarship program four years ago. These $1,200 annual grants were designed to fill in gaps not covered by federal Pell Grants, named scholarships and general scholarships. We started out budgeting $40,000 annually, gradually raising it to $100,000. We couldn’t give it all away. We dropped the allocation to $80,000 last year and $85,000 in the current year.
Taken together, Pell grants, local scholarships, loan forgiveness and miscellaneous financial aid already make community college “free” to the financially neediest students. Add to that, NC community colleges have an “open admission” policy, making them available to residents over 18 possessing a high school diploma or a general equivalency degree (GED).
They do have to show up, register and ask for help.
I’ve personally offered to take 14 prospective students to COA’s campus to get them enrolled. I’ve had one success; another looks promising. Admissions and financial aid staffs will knock themselves out to help. I’m sure this is true of the staff at the Elizabeth City State University Foundation, too.
Community college students typically face a raft of other problems thwarting their college dreams. These can include hunger and financial stress. The COA Cares program stocks a mini food bank on campus with non-perishables and sundry items for student use. The foundation has paid for car repairs and provided gas money to get students to class.
Still, enrollment is flat or down at COA and at many of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. Enrollment of 2,557 has grown just 6 percent in five years. Only 30 percent of students are male, but that is a subject for another day.
Across town, ECSU is making notable strides in increasing its enrollment. Despite the NC College Promise Program, which limits tuition to $500 a semester, enrollment of 2,054 students is still one-third below the enrollment zenith in 2010.
Where is everybody, you might ask?
Even my Rotary club had difficulty last year giving away 11 college scholarships. Applications were down by two-thirds. Some of that was no doubt COVID-related. One high school guidance counselor said it was difficult to persuade students to apply for the money anyway. “We can’t make them do anything,” she lamented.
More money is not the answer to the challenge of how to get more Americans through college.
Ambition cannot be legislated. Fire in the belly cannot be funded.
Doug Gardner served on the College of The Albemarle Board of Trustees for 11 years and has served on the COA Foundation for 23 years, twice as president.