On the first day of classes for this semester at Berkeley City College in Berkeley, California, there are hundreds of students rushing to class, printing out their schedules, and standing in line at the financial aid office. That’s where I ran into Dominique Bell and Tyfanni Edwards, who are both 19. They were in line to check on the status of their financial aid. Edwards said she was “trying to see what’s going on with that [financial aid] because I haven’t gotten it yet.”
I’ve actually known Bell and Edwards for a long time, which made it kind of awkward interviewing them. We all went to high school just a few blocks away from Berkeley City College and now we all go to this community college for the same reason. It’s cheap.
I figured Bell would be a shoe-in to support President Obama’s free community college tuition proposal. But for her, it’s not so simple. She had more questions than answers. “Um, can I ask a question?…So you’re not going to need financial aid too because that’s kinda free, financial aid, right?” asked Bell.
I understand why she’s confused. Community college students are more likely than students at four-year schools to qualify for federal financial aid in the form of need based Pell Grants. So for Bell and her friend Edwards, and for me too, our tuition is already free. But for Bell, those grants aren’t enough to cover all the cost. “Are they going to pay for textbooks? Are they going to pay, like, other things. You have to have other things, other than just tuition, paid for. It’s not only about tuition,” said Bell.
That’s also one of my concerns. Money was so tight in my house that one time my mom had to choose between buying me a textbook or paying the phone bill.
Community college students tend to be lower income and more financially independent than kids at four-year schools. To help pay for rent, food and transportation, students like me have jobs. Jobs that prevent the majority of us from going to school full time, which means it’ll take us longer to graduate. That’s the case of 28-year-old Kim Kylland. She’s has been going to community colleges off and on for the last ten years.”I always had to work full time and support myself, so it made it really hard to take a full 12 units and do well in the classes,” said Kylland. “I live in an apartment with my husband. We have rent. We have a car payment. We have phone bills like anyone else. You know, tons of bills.”
Thomas Bailey directs the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He says under President Obama’s community college tuition plan, many low-income students would no longer have to pay for tuition with Pell Grants, and could use the money they save for living expenses. But beyond the free tuition idea, Professor Bailey wants more discussion about how to make community colleges better for students. “I think that it’s clear that the proposal will get more students in the front door, but it’s not clear it will get more students to the finish line,” said Bailey.
Bailey wants community colleges to simplify pathways to a degree, and make credits more transferable to four-year schools. He says both would help improve completion rates. According to the Department of Education, only about a third of students at community colleges complete their degrees, and fewer than 12 percent go on to get their bachelor’s.
Free tuition or not, those numbers do worry students like me.