As postsecondary education has become nearly essential for getting a decent job and entering the middle class, it has become financially out of reach for many of America's young people. Costs have risen exponentially, while financial-aid policies have increasingly abandoned students with the greatest financial need. This means that students and their families now pay (or borrow) a lot more for a college degree, and increasing numbers of students work at least part time. All of these factors increase the risk that more young people from low- to moderate-income families -- who are disproportionately African American, Hispanic, and first-generation college students -- will enroll only to drop out because of financial constraints. These trends are most evident at community colleges.
Over the next decade, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. Yet college graduation rates have stagnated (see Michael Hout, page A8). During the same period, however, undergraduate enrollments increased by nearly 20 percent. The troubling reality is that nearly half of students who enroll in college will drop out before earning a degree.
Even among the students most likely to succeed -- those who begin college as full-time students at four-year institutions -- only three out of five complete a bachelor's degree within six years. Among young students (under age 24) at community colleges, only two out of five complete some kind of credential -- whether an associate or bachelor's degree or a professional certificate -- within six years. Although the overwhelming majority of students who enter community colleges hope to earn a bachelor's degree or higher (with black and Hispanic students having the highest aspirations) -- just over 10 percent go on to complete a four-year degree.
College Degrees for Only the Well-to-Do?
Although financial aid has long favored full-time, four-year students, policies increasingly cater to the nation's most affluent and best-prepared students. In the last 25 years, college tuition and fees increased more than 400 percent, while median family income increased by less than 150 percent. The purchasing power of Pell grants, the nation's largest source of need-based financial aid, has declined precipitously: When the program was established in the 1970s, grants covered three-quarters of the cost of attending a public four-year college or university. By 2007, the maximum grant covered only a third of such costs. Despite scheduled increases, Pell grants will continue to cover only a fraction of the cost of a postsecondary education.
In 1990, 56 percent of federal financial aid to undergraduates in the United States was in the form of loans, and 39 percent was awarded in grants. By 2008, this had shifted to 64 percent of the funds awarded as loans and only 26 percent as grants. State financial-aid policies have shifted from need-based to merit-based student aid, and colleges have increasingly used more of their financial-aid resources to attract the best-prepared students regardless of financial need.
The results for college completion rates by income and race are alarming. Only 26 percent of young college students from the lowest-income families obtain a bachelor's degree after six years compared to 56 percent of those from the highest-income families. The six-year bachelor's completion rate for black and Hispanic students is 17 percent and 19 percent respectively.
Work Hard, Play by the Rules -- and Drop Out?
One consequence of rising costs and shifts in financial aid is that more low- and moderate-income students work long hours and enroll part time to finance their education, putting them at risk of dropping out. The percentage of full-time college students under age 24 who work increased from 34 percent in 1970 to over 50 percent in 2000. In 1970, about 15 percent of full-time college students worked more than 20 hours a week. More than 30 years later, that percentage has doubled.
Research is very clear about the impact of work on student outcomes: Working more than 15 hours per week interferes with students' ability to complete their degrees, but working less than this amount is actually associated with better educational and employment outcomes. In surveys, students who have left college without earning a degree cite employment and finances as the main reasons for their departure. One study finds that about 40 percent of students who worked full time while enrolled left within three years, compared to about 20 percent of those who worked part time and only 13 percent of those who did not work.
With increases in student employment have come increases in rates of part-time enrollment. In 1970, 16 percent of students under age 24 enrolled part time; by 1998, that figure had increased to 22 percent. During that same time, the number of part-time undergraduates more than doubled from 2.8 million to 6 million. Part-time enrollment increases the risk of dropping out even more than employment. After controlling for other factors, one study found that 51 percent of undergraduates who enrolled part time left by the end of three years without a credential in contrast to 14 percent of students who first enrolled full time.
Heavy work burdens and part-time enrollment have similar effects: They curtail the time that students devote to their studies and limit their access to educational resources. Students who work long hours and/or enroll only part time are constrained by the number of classes they can take, course selection, class schedules, and access to the library. Further, when students can't fully engage in school, they have limited time and energy to invest in building relationships with faculty and other students. Research is clear that such relationships play a critical role in academic success.
Community College Students: Canaries in the Coal Mine?
Enrollments at community colleges have been soaring, increasing at more than three times the rate of four-year colleges. In 2007, nearly 4 million young adults -- 43 percent of all young students enrolled at public colleges and universities -- attended a community college. Traditional-age college students are increasingly looking to community colleges for affordable tuition, even if they hope to transfer and eventually earn a four-year degree. With college education widely viewed as a prerequisite to getting a job with decent pay and benefits, community colleges are attracting more young students who, a generation ago, might not have pursued postsecondary education.
Yet students at community colleges have been especially hard hit by increased tuition and living costs as well as declining financial aid. These students suffer the most from the need to work and the constraints that lead to part-time enrollment. Although a majority of young students are employed, more young community college students work than do their counterparts at public four-year institutions -- and they work much longer hours. Among the 84 percent of young community college students who worked last year, about 60 percent worked more than part time (more than 20 hours per week) and about a quarter worked full time (more than 35 hours per week). These employment burdens stand in stark contrast to the work hours of students at public four-year colleges, where fewer than half work more than part time and only 14 percent work full time.
Similarly, young community college students enroll part time at significantly higher rates than do their counterparts at public four-year colleges. In 2007–2008, nearly 60 percent of young community college students enrolled part time compared to less than 20 percent of students at four-year institutions. Notably, Hispanic community college students enrolled part time at the highest rate (64 percent). While financial pressures have led all college students -- whether at two- or four-year institutions -- to work more, only community college students have experienced steep increases in part-time enrollment.
If as a society we care about equity when it comes to higher education, these trends should spur us to action. It's the children of the working class and the barely middle class who show up on community college campuses. Only 38 percent of community college students obtain a degree (bachelor's, associate, or certificate) within six years of starting their studies. Those who tout higher education as the answer to growing socioeconomic inequality should take note.
Relieving Students' Financial Burdens
President Barack Obama has recognized the importance of higher education and the need for increased financial aid. Rep. George Miller of California followed the president's lead by introducing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in July. The bill would make significant new investments in the Pell grant program and would increase funding for Perkins loans, which target students with the greatest financial need and currently offer the lowest interest rates. Although access to Perkins loans has been limited at community colleges, the new proposal would make it less onerous for financially constrained community colleges to participate. The proposed legislation requires no new dollars: It would be financed entirely by freeing up money that currently subsidizes private lenders who make student loans.
These are important initiatives, but the public discourse on higher education has yet to recognize the adverse effects of long work hours and part-time enrollment on postsecondary success -- even among students who have received adequate academic preparation for college and who have few other impediments to completing their degrees. The research shows that full-time enrollment and part-time employment of less than 15 hours per week provide the optimal situation for young students to concentrate on their studies and succeed. Yet nearly 80 percent of young community college students work more than 15 hours per week, and financial barriers are leading increased numbers of young students to enroll only part time.
It has become commonplace for analysts to suggest that increased student aid should be premised on a willingness to work. Some go so far as to deny the importance of financial constraints on dismal completion rates at community colleges. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote, "Lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home." Brooks is right that many students, especially at community colleges, face multiple barriers to completing their degrees and that addressing financial barriers alone will not magically solve the problem of low graduation rates. But he is wrong to suggest that financial constraints don't matter.
What happened to the idea that first-time college students ought to be able to enroll full time and work only part time? Research clearly demonstrates that the opposite -- full-time employment and part-time enrollment -- poses serious obstacles to postsecondary success. But the new conventional wisdom seems to be that in these changed economic times, it's fine for college to be a part-time pursuit.
Restoring the Promise of Higher Education
What can be done? Recent proposals to increase Pell grants and other forms of need-based aid are a good start. But we need to do more to help first-time college students with basic living expenses. Students who live off campus -- campus living isn't an option for many -- need help paying for rent, utilities, transportation, and groceries. Overburdened students also need protection from the unexpected -- a medical or family emergency, for example. An innovative program at Central New Mexico Community College offers funds to help students in financial crisis stay enrolled. And finally, something must be done to stop the escalation of college tuition. Declining state fiscal support means that even public colleges and universities aren't nearly as affordable as they once were.
Today's young adults are highly motivated to seek a postsecondary education because they know it is critical to their economic future, yet too many of them are sidelined by the burden of paying for school while meeting their other financial obligations. Until policy-makers recognize that long work hours place an unnecessary burden on struggling young college students and seek to redress this problem, financial constraints will continue to suppress both full-time enrollment and graduation rates, especially among low-income students at community colleges. The college graduation gap between children of the affluent and children from families of modest means will continue to grow, which will only exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities in postsecondary success. Reducing these disparities would go a long way toward restoring America's promise of opportunity -- by restoring the promise of higher education.