Truth and Meaning: Community College Realities

Last Sunday, the Midland Daily News published an editorial titled “Our View: Aid, scholarships already available for community college.” An adequate response mandates that the falsehoods in each sentence be addressed.

“Community college should be affordable and doable for everyone who wants to take advantage of it. We agree, without a doubt.”

Obviously, the Midland Daily News does not agree with this statement because there are many people who cannot afford community college and this opinion piece opposes a proposal to eliminate those costs. The average student at Delta College taking two classes in one term pays $707 in tuition and fees. Add on the cost of books, gas, childcare and all of the other related expenses, and the total easily exceeds $1,000 per term. If the student is working 40 hours per week at minimum wage jobs, that is 3 1/2 week’s worth of salary.

“However, we believe in most cases there are many opportunities for people to attend community college at no expense or nearly no expense to them.”

No data support this claim. Last year, Delta College awarded $1,077,142 in scholarships to 15,000 students. That equates to a whopping $72 per student — not even the cost of one credit hour.

“Community college has always been an affordable and potentially debt-free way for people to start their path toward a four-year degree and beyond.”

Virtually no one attends college today without incurring massive loan debt. According to the Wall Street Journal, the class of 2014 was the most indebted ever. The average 2014 graduate is burdened with student-loan debt of $33,000, nearly double the amount for students 20 years ago after adjusting for inflation.

“Tuition is lower than four-year universities and most traditional students are able to continue living at home, forgoing the expense of living on campus or off-campus.”

One-third of the students at Delta College are 25 years old or older. One can hardly imagine that many of them are still living in their parent’s home. Another third are 20 to 24 years old, making this a grossly classist point. Just because people with financial resources can afford to pay for their kids to live on campus is no excuse for expecting poorer kids to continue living at home.

“Making these educations more affordable — and in a lot of cases at no cost to students — are federal financial aid packages based on income as well as scholarships, which often go unclaimed at some community colleges because they’re not sought after by students.”

According to Peterson’s, the definitive expert publisher of college guides, this claim is an utter myth. “This one has been around since the word ‘scholarship’ was invented… (colleges) seldom have university scholarships that aren’t awarded, and if they do, it’s usually because of timing or highly restrictive eligibility requirements.”

“Presumably, President Obama’s proposal for a free community college education for everyone is targeted at those who can’t afford the cost. “A quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” he said in a recent speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville. However, we believe the costs associated with a community college education, because of federal aid and scholarships already available as well as the earnings from jobs most full-time students have, are affordable. Even older adults seeking to change careers or get back into the workforce can take advantage of federal financial aid and scholarships.”

This is an offensive and elitist statement that exhibits an intentional blindness to the state of the underclass in America today. In FY 2012, the average federal student aid awarded per student totaled $11,073, of which $6,654 (60 percent) consisted of loans. Students then typically make up the difference with additional loans from private sources. To claim that federal grants and scholarships are even remotely sufficient to meet the current need is absurd.

In addition, bringing the earnings of the average community college student into the equation is laughable. Two-thirds of the students at Delta College are 24 years old or younger. It is safe to say, therefore, that many are working at minimum wage jobs and and likely earning less than $10/hour. And since few of these students can find actual “full-time” jobs (where the employer provides benefits), many are forced to work two or more jobs to attain “full-time” employment status. And, by the way, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, only 41 percent of part-time students are employed full-time and only 22 percent of full-time students have full-time employment.

So, let’s calculate “affordable.” A student works 40 hours per week making $10/hour — just enough to be above the poverty level and not qualify for any government assistance. So, they make roughly $20,800 before taxes. If they take two courses per term for three terms at Delta College, the total cost will amount to roughly $2,500, or 12 percent of their total gross income. After rent, food, gas, car insurance, utilities, childcare, medical and dental expenses, and other necessities, what is left?

“The money is there for those who need help paying for community college, but the financial aid and scholarships need to be applied for first in order to be awarded. Really, what needs to become more affordable are the college costs that come after the community college degree. Those are the costs that are crippling people.”

No. What really needs to happen is for arrogant people of means to stop erecting even more roadblocks to honest, hard-working people trying to get out of the grip of institutionalized poverty in this nation. What we really need are fewer political hacks so intent on disagreeing with anything this president might suggest, that they are willing to throw the more than seven million community college students under the bus. What we really need are editorial writers who make at least a cursory effort to look into facts before parroting outworn prejudices and unsubstantiated myths.

Every struggling student attending Delta College deserves an apology for this opinion piece and I encourage readers to share your experiences in the comments if you have been a community college student.