Washington Watch: AACC releases brief on community college affordability and public policy

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The College Board’s latest data on college tuitions have just been published. This fall, the average full-time, full-year community tuition and fees were only $3,730, a $100 or 2.8 percent increase from the previous year.  The average in-state tuition at public four-year institution was $10,440. Despite countervailing enrollment trends, community colleges remain a great bargain.

Title IV federal student aid programs can’t do it alone

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has just published a policy brief on community college affordability that explores the financing challenges facing community college students, despite the generally low tuitions they are charged. The financial hurdles facing many community college students run much deeper than simply being able to cobble together the funds defined in the federal student aid (Title IV of the Higher Education Act [HEA]) “cost of attendance.” The Title IV framework — if adequately funded, which it is not — works reasonably well for traditionally-aged residential college students. However, Title IV as currently constructed does not reflect well the needs of community colleges students faced with food and housing insecurity and who may have problematic access to health care, not to mention children or other family responsibilities.

Community college leaders are cognizant of this and have launched a variety of services to make non-Title IV resources available to students. AACC has become more directly involved with congressional activity on food insecurity issues. In the last Congress, AACC heard concerns from member colleges about the potential campus impact of significant changes to Medicaid through the efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. More recently, in a significant legislative development that AACC supports, the HEA reauthorization legislation approved by the House Education and Labor Committee would require institutions to use the Title IV programs to inform students about Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. And, in general, policymakers are increasingly aware that the parameters of affordability go well beyond Title IV.

2020 politics and community college affordability

Next year’s national elections could have dramatic impacts on community college student affordability, also outlined in the brief. It’s important for community college leaders to become familiar with some of the relevant issues, because not all the items currently on the table, some of which are quite appealing politically, significantly benefit their students. A few things to keep in mind:

  • No matter what newfangled idea comes along, for the foreseeable future the Pell Grant program will almost certainly remain the most important financing vehicle for community college students. In addition to its many policy initiatives, the House committee-reported College Affordability Act (CAA) invests significant new resources in the bedrock Pell Grant program, starting with a $625 increase in the maximum grant. This is great news. For the foreseeable future, AACC’s primary legislative objective will be to maintain a robust Pell Grant program, with limited expansions such as short-term Pell grants and Second Chance Pell. However, AACC opposes the CAA’s opening up Pell grants to graduate and professional students.
  • Don’t forget about the tax code. The tax code is an arena in which community colleges have traditionally been outgunned by more affluent institutions. AACC believes that changes need to be made to the code to help community college students wanting to upgrade their workforce opportunities to qualify for greater support through the Lifetime Learning Credit. AACC also supports policy changes to allow students to qualify for the $2,500 maximum American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) without having to pay taxes on their Pell grants (yes, that’s how the law works).
  • For community college students, student loan forgiveness has its limits, for the virtuous reason that they borrow a lot less than students in other sectors. Only about 13 percent of all community college students borrow, while 65 percent of all four-year students graduate with debt. Forgiving large amounts of student debt be hugely regressive and, from AACC’s perspective, a questionable use of limited federal resources. The student debt “crisis” is not quite that for all students who have loans. AACC’s brief outlines ways in which forgiveness can be better targeted.
  • Finally, a federal plan to eliminate community college tuition could obviously be hugely beneficial for students, particularly if it is a “first-dollar” proposal rather than a framework designed to “top off” other grant aid. It is the latter configuration that has taken has been adopted across numerous states. Deriving from the plan originally proposed by President Obama, CAA contains a first dollar proposal that represents a historic investment in community colleges. However, it will only become a reality of community college leaders speak up on its behalf. In addition, the outcome of the upcoming presidential campaign could also hugely impact these discussions.

All these and related issues have become part of the 2020 election debate, and will very likely grow in prominence in the coming months. We urge you to stay engaged in AACC’s public policy activities.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.