Higher education

Ohio needs a financial aid system that doesn’t treat community colleges like second-class citizens


In hearings across the state, Ohio’s House Higher Education Study Committee, led by Rep. Cliff Rosenberger (R., Clarksville), found that a lot of people are concerned about what’s happened to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant. Committee members should make returning eligibility for those grants to community college students a top priority.

Ohio’s community colleges do an excellent job providing education and training for today’s job market — and maintaining access to higher education when tuition costs at four-year universities are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Community college tuitions average $3,800 a year — about one-third that of those at four-year schools.

But Ohio’s community colleges can’t fully meet the needs of its students, or the state’s high-tech economy, with a financial aid system that treats them and their more than 200,000 students, including nearly 15,000 at Toledo-area Owens Community College, as second-class citizens.

Unfortunately, the state has, in effect, cut community college students out of the Ohio College Opportunity Grant program.

In 2009, the General Assembly cut the OCOG budget from roughly $395 million to $171 million. Making matters worse, it also forced low-income students to use federal Pell grants to cover tuition expenses at community colleges before tapping state grants. Those changes made nearly all community college students ineligible for OCOG.

Unlike Pell grants, state grants cover tuition only. And because tuition is low at community colleges, Pell grants typically cover students’ tuition.

Before the changes, 20,000 community college students in Ohio received state grants.

Ohio needs legislation that would permit community college students to, first, use OCOG to cover tuition costs, thereby enabling them to tap federal Pell grants for other college-related expenses. That change also would call for setting aside another $20 million a year to cover the more than 20,000 newly eligible community college students.

Students would receive the assistance in work force development grants — as much as $1,000 a semester. To ensure accountability, state grants would be contingent on whether students completed their course work, a performance-based measure that also supports Gov. John Kasich’s efforts to ensure that more students graduate.

Most of the good-paying jobs in the 21st century will require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. That’s why community colleges are so important to the futures of hundreds of thousands of students, both traditional and nontraditional, including some of the state’s most disadvantaged. Ohio also needs community colleges to meet industry demands for an educated work force.

Graduates with one-year certificates in high-demand fields such as welding, accounting, auto mechanics, and commercial driver, or two-year associate’s degrees in computer repair and advanced manufacturing can earn $50,000 or $60,000 a year, or more. More than 80 percent of community college graduates work and live in their communities, said Jeffrey Ortega of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Enabling more of them to receive financial assistance would not only provide opportunities for some of the state’s most disadvantaged students but also boost Ohio’s efforts to attract and retain employers.