During a House hearing Wednesday on college costs, it was the testimony of a community college graduate who summed up the challenges that many two-year college students face, as well as the college services available to help them cross such hurdles.
Sitting on a panel before the House Education and Labor Committee that included researchers, an interim university chancellor and a former White House adviser, it was 29-year-old Jenae Parker — who came with her 8-year-old daughter — that had lawmakers listening intently and even drawing emotional, heartfelt responses from them.
Parker’s story includes many aspects that members of the committee want to address as they look to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, from her own lack of understanding about the total costs of attending college and options to pay for them, to the counseling and wraparound services provided at Columbus State Community College (Ohio) and other local providers that buoyed her to earn her associate degree.
The hearing was the first of five planned by the committee that are related to HEA reauthorization.
Parker started and stopped college twice before her third attempt finally led to a degree from Columbus State. In 2008, she started at the University of Toledo as first-generation student coming from a single-parent home. She wasn’t prepared for the expenses. Even with a $4,300 Pell Grant and working three jobs, she had to borrow more than $20,000 in private and public loans in her first year. Exhausted, she dropped after two years.
Five years later, she tried again. She now had a daughter and was recently divorced. She worked full-time and enrolled in Columbus State because it was less expensive. But again life became too much of a challenge. In addition to her daughter, she also was tending to her ill mother, and upon her passing had to care for her two teenage brothers. Again, she dropped out.
Four years later, Parker tried again by re-enrolling at Columbus State, this time as a part-time student. Again, she worked three jobs — at CVS, the postal service and a third-shift cleaning job — and earned an associate degree this December. She has now transferred to Franklin University where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human resources.
Unaware of total costs
Several committee members noted that many college students lack financial literacy, which can get them into debt fast. Too often, students — especially first-generation students and those from low-income families — focus on the tuition and don’t look at related expenses, speakers at the hearing noted.
“Students are shockingly uninformed about their own financial circumstances,” said Elizabeth Ackers, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute in New York City. Only about half of first-year college students know how much they are paying for their degree, and about one-third of students know how much they’ve borrowed, she said.
That was the case with Parker. She had to account for costs such as books and supplies, transportation, food, housing, child care and other expenses. She currently has about $66,000 in college debt.
“So many people think community college is already free, especially for people like me who get a Pell Grant,” Parker said.
Services and resources
In Parker’s case, Columbus State did have resources to help. The college helped her secure subsidized child care and provided assistance in completing an application for federal SNAP benefits. A staffer also helped Parker sign up for medical insurance and directed her to scholarships. In addition, she was also referred to the Columbus Scholar House, which provides housing for lower income college students with children.
“It takes a platform — all of these put together — for me to be able to get to completion,” Parker said.
Another benefit: Columbus State has a partnership with Franklin University that allows students to transfer up to 94 semester hours from the college. As an employee of Columbus State, Parker also receives a 15 percent discount on tuition to attend Franklin.
Dual enrollments and articulation agreements among high schools, community colleges and universities were also noted as ways to control college costs. Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, has a memorandum of understanding with all the community colleges in the state, said Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar, adding that 42 percent of the university’s students are transfer students. Joint advising for transfer students and assuring that curricula are aligned have been particularly important, she said.
Declining state support
The panelists noted that, in general, states have significantly decreased funding for higher education, which means a greater portion of the cost is assumed by students through tuition and fees. Several committee members called on states to reinvest in higher education.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Massachusetts) observed what she called an “amenities arms race” among colleges to have the newest dorms, athletic facilities and other amenities, and questioned if that is driving up college costs. James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success and a former White House policy adviser in the Obama administration, said that many colleges and universities chase the prestige of making best-of lists such as those of U.S. News & World Report, which are often based on how much they spend, Kvaal said.
“We don’t value community colleges and regional universities that are inclusive and affordable and higher in quality,” he said.