Many people have an idyllic image of college as a time of freedom and exploration, with few responsibilities. Yet more and more students, especially in community colleges, are older, with adult responsibilities, and adult concerns. Many of them are low-income.
For these students, public benefits can be an important bridge to college success, especially among older, non-traditional students with families. Unfortunately, such students often don’t know where to look. Educating students about the help that is available is an investment in their futures that will pay dividends for society.
In search of an affordable path to postsecondary and economic success, 7.1 million students attend community colleges each year. But while tuition costs are significantly lower than those at four-year public institutions, other costs of attending community college – including basic living expenses, transportation, and textbooks – are still substantial. In 2010-11, a year at a community college was estimated to cost $14,637, compared to $20,339 for the average undergraduate at a public, four-year university.
For students who are supporting families, the cost is even higher, as housing, food, and child care costs add to the total. Once a rarity, these students are becoming increasingly common. In 2009, 42.1 percent of students were over 24, and 23 percent were parents.
Financial aid can help to cover costs, but community college students receive comparatively little financial support, and their overall burden is high. In addition, financial aid policies often are written with younger students in mind, some of whom can depend on their own parents for economic support. After accounting for available financial aid, a greater share of community college students still have unmet need (80 percent) than did public four-year college students (54 percent). The average full-time community college student is projected to have more than $6,000 in unmet need in 2010-2011.