Paying for community college


Here are two things every Ohio lawmaker should know: Most of the good-paying jobs in the new economy will require more than a high school diploma. But most of them will require less than a four-year degree.

One-year certificates in high-demand fields such as welding, accounting, auto mechanics, and commercial driving, or two-year associate’s degrees in computer repair and advanced manufacturing, will land students in jobs that pay $50,000 or $60,000 a year, or more. Still, state lawmakers, most of them products of four-year institutions of higher education, continue to treat Ohio’s community colleges and their more than 200,000 students like second-class citizens.

In 2009, the General Assembly approved a budget that locked out the vast majority of community college students from need-based financial aid through the Ohio College Opportunity Grant program. Besides dramatic cuts in the program, other changes forced low-income students to use federal Pell Grants to cover tuition expenses at community colleges — about one-third as much as tuition costs at most four-year schools.

Those changes effectively made nearly all community college students ineligible for Ohio College Opportunity Grants. Unlike Pell Grants, the state grants cover tuition only.

“It’s as though you’re punishing community college students for having low tuitions,” Jeffrey Ortega of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges told The Blade’s editorial page. Before the changes, 20,000 community college students in Ohio received the state grants.

State House members should approve a budget measure before them that would fix the problem. The legislation would permit community college students to, first, use Ohio College Opportunity Grants to cover tuition costs, and then tap federal Pell Grants for other college-related expenses.

The proposed new state budget allocates about $176 million for Ohio College Opportunity Grants — $88 million a year for 2014 and 2015. The House amendment, prudently, calls for setting aside another $20 million a year to help meet the needs of more than 20,000 newly eligible community college students. Those students would receive so-called work-force development grants of as much as $1,000 a semester, depending on whether they finished their course work.

These changes are reasonable, fair, and in the state’s best interest. Ohio community colleges serve a disproportionate share of the state’s poorest students. 

They also boost local economies by providing employers with highly skilled workers.

Giving community college students access to Ohio College Opportunity Grants is good business for Ohio — and a much-needed opportunity for the state’s most disadvantaged students.