Politicians and policymakers continue to debate whether the better economic development strategy is cutting taxes or investing in education, roads, transit, and other economic drivers. Evidence around the country clearly points to investment as the more effective way to nurture business growth and attract and retain talented workers.
Still, the administration of Gov. John Kasich continues to pursue a backward policy that promotes tax cuts at the expense of vital investments in Ohio’s future. Nowhere has that strategy been more evident than in higher education. At a time when an educated work force is more vital than ever before for economic growth, a post-secondary education — even at community colleges — has become increasingly unaffordable.
Ohio has cut need-based student aid by one-third during the past decade, according to a Policy Matters Ohio report that cites data from the National Association of State and Student Grant and Aid Programs. A legislative study committee on higher education found that average annual tuition and fees exceeded the national average by 32 percent at Ohio’s public two-year colleges and by 19 percent at four-year schools.
As the Policy Matters report “Blocking the College Door” notes, post-secondary education provides a means to decent wages and benefits, even in a sluggish economy. Need-based aid makes a college education accessible, especially when tuition rates are high.
Without it, students must work more hours and prolong their education, take out burdensome loans, or quit school. More than two-thirds of Ohio graduates leave college with debt, averaging $29,000.
Need-based aid is especially important at Ohio’s 23 community colleges, where more students are older, independent, and low-income. A guaranteed tuition rate proposed by Governor Kasich that would apply to a community college student’s time on campus would be helpful. But it is no substitute for access to financial aid to help meet tuition costs that are already, in many cases, unaffordable.
Such aid is vital not only to students’ futures, but also to meeting the state’s work-force development and training needs, a priority of the Kasich administration. 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.
As members of the General Assembly consider changes to the two-year state budget proposed by the governor, they should include $20 million a year to make community college students eligible for need-based state grants.
In 2009, lawmakers cut the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) program from $395 million a year to $171 million. 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 of Ohio’s 200,000 community college students, including nearly 15,000 in the Toledo area at Owens Community College, ineligible for OCOG. Before the changes, 20,000 Ohio community college students got need-based state grants.
Undoing those changes with a budget amendment would not erase the damage done to need-based financial aid during the past decade. But it would make the state’s financial aid system more fair to students — and far more relevant to meeting the state’s work-force training needs.