Community college students are changing — it's time for financial aid policies to change too
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Go ask ALICE about Operation Varsity Blues, and you won’t get much of a reaction. That’s because while highly selective schools grab lots of ink, including the not-so-good ink from the high-profile admissions scandal, it’s the open-access institutions in our community college sector who serve a plurality of U.S. postsecondary students, 38 percent of undergraduates according to the most recent available data. 

No longer can we pretend that postsecondary students are 18-to-24-year-olds who enter and finish a degree at one institution. Instead, and increasingly, these students are adult learners who are disproportionately African American and Latino, women and first-generation college students. They are ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed.

Despite having jobs, many ALICE students who pursue traditional academic degrees within community colleges are older than their university counterparts and have a hard time affording the basic cost of living. ALICE students are too busy to worry about Operation Varsity Blues.

The truth about ALICE students is that very few of them will enroll in a traditional college degree program, let alone the kinds of selective school programs caught up in the scandal. They take too long to complete; they are too expensive to pursue; and they require a sense of academic confidence these students haven’t felt in a long time, if ever.

Nevertheless, it’s vital that ALICE students have access to higher education in order to participate in the increasingly competitive global economy. And access to higher education comes down to dollars and sense. Common sense reveals that the demographics of community college students are changing. That’s why it’s time for the policies around a key source of dollars – Federal financial aid – to change, too.

Now you might be thinking that ALICE students benefit from Pell Grants, but alarmingly the rate of Pell receipt for community college students has fallen in recent years from 38 percent in 2011–12 to 33.5 percent in 2015–16.  Even though community colleges have a much higher proportion of low-income students than other higher education sectors, the rate of Pell receipt for students in our sector is lower than at public four-year colleges and at private nonprofit four-year colleges. We believe the Pell Grant program needs to be modernized to better serve today’s non-traditional, low-income students and incentivize completion. 

Indeed, we believe it’s essential that the Pell Grant program responds to those looking to get a foothold in the workforce. There are numerous short-term credentials that lead directly to employment for which Pell grants are not eligible. That’s why we support “Workforce Pell” – expanding Pell eligibility to these programs that lead directly to jobs.

Though certificates now aren’t counted in many measures of postsecondary attainment, they often provide the outcome that degree-seeking students are looking for: meaningful employment. Short-term credentials can also serve as the first rung on the ladder to a college degree or as training for workers with degrees engaged in the process of lifelong learning and career advancement

The rapid growth of short-term credentials over the past 30 years is a promising signal that students, institutions and industry are recognizing their value at an increasing rate. Most research finds that having a short-term credential is associated with higher earnings; the effect is especially strong for certificates in health fields. In addition, short-term credentials raise the probability that the person is employed and that the job is in an industry related to their skills.

Today, low-income students can use Pell grants to pay for bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees and non-degree programs that last at least 15 weeks. The fact is that meaningful programs leading to an enhanced career pathway can take as few as six weeks. Our community and technical college systems can play an even bigger role in unleashing a powerful engine of economic mobility if Congress expands the usage of Pell grants to include short-term credentials.

For tens of millions of Americans, the pathway to achievement starts in their local community college. And for ALICE students, individuals of limited means, with demanding responsibilities and difficult personal schedules, and who may be the first in their family to pursue higher education, we offer what might be their only chance.

For the same reasons that the federal government invests in those pursuing traditional academic degrees, we should also invest in those pursuing high-quality, stackable, short-term workforce credentials. Congress should recognize this reality: community college students are changing, and it’s time for financial aid policies to change, too. Go ask ALICE, and we think you’ll learn that Workforce Pell is a great place to start.

Dr. Glenn DuBois is Chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges, Dr. Morna K. Foy is President of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), and Dr. Monty Sullivan is System President of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS). Dr. DuBois, Dr. Foy, and Dr. Sullivan are board members of Rebuilding America’s Middle Class (RAMC), a coalition of community colleges and systems dedicated to promoting student success and advancing the role that community and technical colleges play in that success.