How Ohio fails community college students

Akron Beacon Journal - March 20, 2014

Editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal

Ohio long has lagged behind the nation in its investment in higher education. A recent Policy Matters Ohio report examines the fallout. The Cleveland-based think tank notes that in 1991, the state dedicated $7.03 out of every $1,000 in personal income to higher education, ranking 38th among the states. Twenty years later, the amount had slipped to $4.57, the state at 41st, all in the context of the national average declining, too.

In 2012, Ohio ranked sixth highest in the share of graduates leaving with debt, and ninth in the category of average debt load. The state stands a disappointing 33rd in the share of its population with an associate’s degree or higher.

The objective isn’t to leap suddenly to the head of the pack, Massachusetts at 51.4 percent. Ohio would benefit from steadily increasing the percentage, improving its work force and the prospects for innovation and growth.

The Policy Matters analysis, “Blocking the College Door,” focuses on a glaring shortcoming, the state having reduced dramatically its support of need-based aid for college students. Those looking to attend two-year community colleges have been harmed the most, virtually shut out of need-based assistance, even as Gov. John Kasich and others tout, and rightly so, the importance of such schools as places where skills can be improved and preparations made to succeed at four-year universities and beyond.

Consider that in 2012, community college tuition and fees in Ohio were 21.9 percent higher than the national average. Yet during the past decade, the state has reduced need-based aid awards by one-third. It is one of just seven states that have cut such aid, delivering one of the highest percentage reductions in the country and the largest among nine Midwest states.

The state provides need-based aid through the Ohio College Opportunity Grant. The steep reductions arrived in 2009 as the governor (Ted Strickland) and legislators took steps to keep the state budget in balance during the severe recession. They also made a change in the formula for awarding aid based on need. They put emphasis on the federal Pell grant, thus reducing flexibility in the use of state grant money.

The result is, state grants to community college students have fallen 95 percent. As Gov. Kasich might say, that is just nuts. Many who attend community college are older, non-traditional students. They have some post-secondary schooling. They want to enhance their skills. They would benefit from flexibility in using the assistance, for books, or child care, or housing.

The Policy Matters report points out that 22.9 percent of Ohioans leave post-secondary education without a degree. Help them to complete their school work, and all of us would benefit. Yet Ohio has taken a contrary, and even harmful, approach of slashing assistance and narrowing access for community college students.

A mid-biennium budget review would seem the ideal vehicle for repairing a mistake the Statehouse has yet to correct in an adequate way. Unfortunately, the governor did not include need-based aid among his leading priorities.

Too expensive? Hardly. Roughly $85 million would restore the assistance to its pre-recession levels. An estimated $20 million would restore grants to community college students. Better such an investment in need-based aid or shaving more percentage points from state income tax rates? It seems an easy call. 

The lack of need-based aid fits into a larger and discouraging story about higher education in Ohio. The Student Impact Project of the organization Young Invincibles released an analysis this week that awarded grades to each state based on its investment in higher education.

Ohio received an F.

The report points to tuition rates above the national average, reflecting a decline in state spending per student of 27 percent the past five years, now roughly half the average amount across the country. In Ohio, tuition covers 62 percent of college costs. The national average is 47 percent. Ohio spends today on higher education the equivalent of what it spent in the 1980s, even as knowledge has become more valuable to an advanced economy.

The governor has touted the increased collaboration among state universities and colleges. That is a good thing. Yet it doesn’t carry the promise of directly investing in college students — and the future of the state.

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