Granting opportunity


State lawmakers have wrapped up six public hearings on higher education reform around Ohio, including at Penta Career Center in Perrysburg Township. Topics of the hearings, attended by hundreds of people, included credit transfers, adult education, faculty workloads, dual-enrollment programs, state funding, financial aid, and student debt.

However, the issue that came up most often was returning an estimated 20,000 community college students to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) program. It should take priority not only in a legislative study committee’s upcoming report, but also during an expected budget-correction session early next year.

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The General Assembly should amend the current two-year budget to include $20 million a year to make community college students eligible for state grants.

In 2009, legislators cut the OCOG budget from $395 million to $171 million. Moreover, it forced low-income students to use federal Pell grants to cover tuition expenses at community colleges before they could tap state grants. Those changes made nearly all community college students ineligible for OCOG.

Unlike Pell grants, state grants cover tuition only. Tuition at community colleges averages $3,800 a year — about one third that of tuition at four-year schools. So Pell grants typically cover students’ tuition needs. Before the changes, 20,000 Ohio community college students got state grants.

Ohio needs legislation that would permit community college students to use OCOG to cover tuition costs. That would enable them to tap Pell grants for other college-related expenses.

Ohio’s 23 community colleges serve about 200,000 students, including nearly 15,000 in the Toledo area at Owens Community College. Restoring OCOG eligibility not only would provide equity to community college students, but also would meet labor market and work-force development needs in Ohio as employers demand increasingly well-trained and educated workers.

Moreover, it would further Gov. John Kasich’s efforts to improve college graduation rates, shorten the time it takes students to graduate, and produce more students ready to enter the work force.

Community college students would receive the aid in the form of performance-based work-force development grants — as much as $1,000 a semester — contingent on whether they completed their course work.

In the future, many good-paying jobs will require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. Graduates with 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, can earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year or more.

More than 80 percent of community college graduates work and live in their hometowns, said Jeffrey Ortega of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. Expanding financial aid to community college students is especially important in urban areas such as Toledo, with high numbers of disadvantaged young people who need an affordable way to train for good-paying jobs or an accessible start on a four-year degree.