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Amid attempts to expand community-college access, current students struggle to graduate

BY Matt Pilon
Sean Teehan

4/1/2019
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
A commencement ceremony at Middlesex Community College.
When Tayyaba Shahbaz changed her major at Manchester Community College in 2017, she had no idea it would disqualify her from receiving financial aid during her final semester.

Until that point, grants and financial aid allowed her to attend MCC at no cost, while a work-study job enabled her to cover living expenses while staying with her parents, but the surprise $1,000-plus tuition bill she received was beyond reach for Shahbaz and her family.

"When I found out, it really upset me. I was in class from 8:30 (a.m.) to 3:30 (p.m.), then I was at work until 8 every night," Shahbaz said of realizing that her education could be at risk. "I almost dropped out."

Shahbaz, now 24 and working as a quality engineer at Manchester manufacturer Paradigm Precision, didn't have to leave school and earned her degree, thanks to a MCC program that grants money to certain students in danger of dropping out due to unforeseen financial circumstances.

Shahbaz's experience of life and financial realities nearly conspiring to push a college degree out of reach isn't unique among community-college students in Connecticut, though her positive outcome is.

In fact, the effective drop-out rate at Connecticut's public two-year colleges is 50 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit education researcher.

Community-college administrators say they've been working to boost degree completion rates, but argue that schools need more money to better support students, many of whom come from lower-income backgrounds and face financial hardships.

That sentiment is relevant to the ongoing debate about whether Connecticut should offer free community college. Instead, some higher-ed officials say the state should spend more of its limited financial resources helping current students, many of whom already go to school for free, graduate.

"You can get as many students as you want into a system, but unless you have the proper supports to help guide them in a structured manner through that system, then I think you're doing the students a disservice," said Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which oversees the state's 12 two-year colleges.

Struggling to complete

In Connecticut and across the country, community colleges have worse graduation rates than their four-year counterparts.

It's an important topic for several reasons. For one, hundreds of millions of federal and state taxpayer dollars are spent each year in Connecticut to help community-college students learn and eventually enter the workforce, but the low graduation rates raise questions about the effectiveness of that investment, especially as two-year schools are increasingly looked upon to create a jobs-ready talent pool.

Second, failure to complete their studies could leave students worse off financially. Like many students, those who drop out indefinitely often have federal or private loans to start paying off once they leave school. Those payments are an especially heavy burden for students who didn't finish their degrees. They are three times more likely to default on their loan payments than students who complete their studies, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Connecticut, the latest federal data show that only 5.1 percent of students at community colleges complete their two-year degrees or certificate programs within two years, even though 33 percent are taking a full-time course load. Meanwhile, only 16.2 percent complete community college within three years.

Perhaps more striking is what happens to students over a longer time horizon. Of the students who enrolled at a Connecticut community college for the first time in 2012, just 33.9 percent had completed their degree by 2018, while 50 percent had not completed and were no longer enrolled in any college or university, National Student Clearinghouse data show.

Connecticut's six-year completion rate for two-year schools is the fourth-lowest among the states NSC measured, and lower than the U.S. average of 39.2 percent.

Ojakian said students leaving school before they finish often comes down to their economic situations beyond just being able to afford tuition.

In fact, 44 percent of community-college students in the state — or 22,000 pupils — already go to school for free, thanks mainly to federal aid targeted at low-income residents.

"If you look at the reasons that our students don't complete [school], it's not for academic reasons," Ojakian said. "Many students fully covered by [federal Pell grants] and other aid still struggle because there are not the resources available above and beyond to help them stay in school."

That includes things like academic and financial advisors for students. The advisor-to-student ratio at CSCU's community colleges is a paltry 900:1, Ojakian said. He said more money should be invested to beef that up.

However, given that the CSCU system faces an expected $57 million budget deficit, Ojakian said he understands investing more in community colleges will be a challenge. That's why he doesn't think it's a smart idea right now to expand free community college to all residents, if it means not increasing support for existing students.

"Opening up access to more students is great, but we don't have the capacity now — in terms of advisors, financial aid, officers, tutoring centers, student success centers — to be able to handle the students that we currently have," he said.

Helping hand

How big are the financial challenges facing some community-college students? At Tunxis Community College they've got a food pantry on campus, according to Gennaro DeAngelis, dean of strategic enrollment management at the Farmington-based school.

"We have students that are either homeless or at risk of being homeless," he said. "We have students who cannot secure independent transportation or afford child care."

Other unique support programs are being tried where funding is available.

MCC's grant-funded retention program, which helped Shahbaz afford her surprise tuition bill, helps students who experience an unexpected financial challenge, like car troubles, said Samantha Plourd, MCC's assistant to the dean of student affairs.

It pays for up to three credits of tuition and extends the amount of time students have to pay off their remaining credits.

The program, which was adopted in 2016, has aided 200 students so far and doled out just over $79,000.

"We understand that life happens, and we don't want to see you drop out just because something happens one semester," Plourd said.

Encouraging full-time study

Part-time course loads are the norm at community colleges, but administrators and policymakers are trying to find ways to get more students to attend full time.

That's because there is a stark contrast in graduation outcomes.

Full-time community-college students in Connecticut have a six-year graduation rate of nearly 55 percent, while only 18 percent of part-time students complete their studies within that time range, according to NSC data.

The full-time completion rate has seen a marked improvement over the past six years, up from 37 percent, but the part-time rate has been mostly stagnant.

Eliminating tuition and fees for students who are currently only partially subsidized could spur more full-time course loads, said Middlesex Community College CEO Steve Minkler.

"The number of heads might not skyrocket, but the credits they're taking could go up, and that's a good thing," Minkler said.

Middlesex is one of a number of community colleges that has improved its outcomes over the past decade, more than doubling the percentage of students who graduate within three years.

He said much of that comes down to a focus on advising students about the most efficient path through their studies, offering more flexible course scheduling, and making sure more students within the same program are in the same classes together. The latter effort is aimed at creating a sense of togetherness and belonging for students, with the aim of retaining them into the next school year.

"Now you've got a higher touch with your fellow students," he said.

Ojakian said higher-ed overseers have been discussing ways to encourage degree completion. That might include guaranteeing a flat tuition rate for full-time students for the duration of their enrollment, or offering discounted tuition for those who complete an associate degree and move on to a CSCU four-year university.

"These are all philosophical concepts and policy discussions that we're having, but absent additional funding," Ojakian paused, "we'll continue to discuss."

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An outsider's perspective on free-college debate