Rethinking financial aid

Ohio’s community colleges need to become a bigger part of the state’s planning for higher education


A new report by an Ohio House study committee outlines formidable challenges for meeting the education and training needs of Ohioans; they include managing student debt and maintaining access to post-secondary schools. As the report suggests, the state also needs better ways to use financial aid to build a work force that can drive a 21st century economy.

The General Assembly can start now by amending the current two-year state budget to include $20 million a year to make community college students eligible for need-based state grants. Lawmakers can make such a change with separate legislation, or through the pending budget-correction bill. Either way, Ohio can’t wait for the next two-year budget cycle to make its financial aid system more fair — and relevant to the state’s economy.

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In 2009, lawmakers cut the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) program from $395 million a year to $171 million. Meanwhile, they 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, the state grants cover tuition only. Tuition at Ohio’s community colleges averages $3,800 a year — about one-third of tuition at the state’s four-year schools.

Pell grants typically cover students’ tuition needs. But more than half of community college students attend school part time and are therefore eligible only for partial Pell grants, said Jeffrey Ortega of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Before the changes, 20,000 Ohio community college students got need-based state grants. Ohio needs legislation that permits community college students to use OCOG to cover tuition, enabling them to tap federal Pell grants for other college-related expenses.

Ohio’s 23 community colleges serve 200,000 students, including nearly 15,000 in the Toledo area at Owens Community College. Making these students eligible for state grants would provide equity, while meeting the state’s labor-market and work-force development needs.

Most of the good-paying jobs in the coming decade will require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. That puts community colleges front and center in training employees for jobs in today’s economy.

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.

To foster retention and improve graduation rates — both goals of Gov. John Kasich’s administration — financial aid should come in the form of performance-based work-force development grants, making such help contingent on whether students complete their course work.

Given their importance in providing opportunity and promoting economic development, certificate programs, as well as two-year degrees, should be eligible for state need-based grants. In granting financial aid, Ohio can’t afford to continue treating community college students as second-class citizens.