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As students wait out financial aid packages, community college is one alternative.


The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

A solution to the financial aid conundrum

It’s late May, and students across the country are still waiting on financial aid offers to come in due to the botched rollout of the FAFSA, the federal financial aid application. Our reporters have written a lot about this, and now are pivoting to how to cover this now that school is out. What are families thinking? Will districts provide additional support during the summer to help students navigate continued FAFSA fallout? That’s not what I want to focus on in this week’s newsletter though. Instead, I’m highlighting a piece I read earlier this month with a sentence that really struck me:

“We needn’t act like if college counselors and advocates don’t throw their summer plans aside to help every student access a university, all those college dreams must disappear.”

Those words come from Sara Goldrick Rab, a senior fellow at Education Northwest who recently wrote about an option she feels students hanging in the lurch right now should give earnest consideration to: community college.

Without a clear understanding of how much college will cost, students run the risk of foregoing enrollment entirely or taking on significant debt without knowing how much the total will be. Attending community college in the fall gives students an on-ramp to higher education without giving up on their dream school.

There are so many myths about community college, she said, that can make the idea of enrolling at one feel like a consolation prize, or that attending will make it unlikely or difficult for students to transfer out and earn a bachelor’s degree. There is truth to this: Recent research shows at the national level, 16% of community college students earned a bachelor’s degree in six years.

The difference right now is the group of students we (media, college access groups and the like) are focusing on are the thousands of kids who have been accepted to a four year college or university but haven’t made a decision yet because of the aid snafu. 

“ … They have the academic preparation and support to attend a four-year college, but if – thanks to FAFSA problems – they start at community college they still have very high odds of success,” she wrote in her op-ed.

To Goldrick-Rab, the bigger risk prospective students face is waiting it out and not enrolling anywhere.

“Not going in the fall with this idea that then you’re gonna go in January does increase the odds you don’t go,” she told me. “There is a real risk in that.”

This is especially true for students who planned on entering a four-year college but opt not to and enter the workforce instead, she said.

“They’re learning that they can actually earn some money by not being in college, and they’re going to get used to that money and they’re not going to go to school,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’re gonna see they’re ahead of the friends who went to college because they’re earning more money. But what they’re gonna find out when they turn 30 is they’re way behind.”

This is not true for everyone, of course, but data bears this notion out. People with a college degree generally earn more than those with only a high school education, though this also depends heavily on demographics and major.

“Nothing is forever. Go, and if you don’t like it, you can file to transfer by the middle of the term, and you can be at the other school you want to be at by January,” she said.

The childcare crisis in Montana

Kyle Cochrane works remotely and simultaneously takes care of his 11-month-old daughter due to lack of affordable childcare options nearby Frenchtown, Montana, on Monday, April 22, 2024. Photo by John Stember

Our latest story partnership published this week: Alex Sakariassen with the Montana Free Press wrote about the 66,000 Montanans who were kept out of the workforce last year because of a lack of available childcare. He spoke with families, providers, policymakers and higher education leaders about what solutions are on the table. He’ll also be talking about his reporting in a free online event next week. You can register here.

Open Campus Texas

We’re adding two additional newsroom partnerships in Texas: the first is a full-time higher ed reporter at The Fort Worth Report, and we’ll soon have another reporter covering community colleges at Houston Landing. The partnerships bring the number of Open Campus newsrooms in Texas to four, including ongoing relationships with The Texas Tribune and El Paso Matters. The partnerships make up a cluster of focused local and statewide reporting we’re calling Open Campus Texas.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Yesterday the UNC System Board of Governors eliminated its policy requiring diversity, equity and inclusion offices at all public universities in the state, and WUNC’s Brianna Atkinson wrote about it here

In Texas, Sneha Dey wrote about a recent state Senate hearing where Texas university leaders discussed how they’re complying with the state’s DEI ban. She also covered the impact of these laws on cultural graduation ceremonies, focusing on students who are organizing smaller ceremonies meant to highlight their identities and cultural heritage.

Around the country, our local reporters have continued to provide thoughtful coverage of what’s happening on campuses with encampments and student protests. Claire Rafford of Mirror Indy wrote about why the police interactions have played out so differently at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus versus its sister campus in Indianapolis. In Chicago, Lisa Kurian Philip wrote about the negotiations at Northwestern, one of the first schools to see its encampment come down peacefully: 

“After five days of back and forth, of ceding ground and bouts of heavy rain and the threat of arrest and disciplinary action, student organizers and school officials managed to do what their counterparts at most other campuses have not: They struck a deal.”

Lisa Kurian Philip, WBEZ

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