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Making college affordable

| April 26, 2010 8:17 AM

Students are drawn to community colleges for many reasons. In fact, estimates suggest that more than half of American undergraduates choose to start their higher education in a community college. In survey after survey, the single attribute that tops most lists of why students choose community colleges is affordability. The numbers tell that story quite clearly. Average annual tuition and fees for a full-time student attending community college are only about 36 percent of those attending a public four-year college or university. At North Idaho College, the savings can be greater as many students can live at home and save money on housing and food while simply commuting to NIC or its many outreach locations. North Idaho College strives to keep tuition and fees affordable, but even our low rates pose a financial challenge for many students.

In recent years, community colleges have caught the attention of politicians and policymakers who recognize community colleges’ dual importance in training workers during the recession and boosting the country’s college graduation rates. While we were grateful for the higher profile, we were not seeing a similar financial commitment to help us keep up with the increasing demand for our programs. However, that has recently changed and we now see signs and actions that suggest community colleges and our students are getting both attention and real help.

The recent health care reform debate in Washington, D.C., overshadowed an important part of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act that significantly strengthened the Pell Grant program. Officially, the program is called the Basic Education Opportunity Grant program. But, throughout higher education everyone calls them Pell Grants in tribute to former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell who championed the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which authorized the program. Simply put, Pell Grants are the foundation of the national effort to make college affordable. Since 1965, students have been able to apply for assistance through the federal Pell Grant program. These scholarships have helped more than 8 million students a year afford college, but, until recently, the financial power of these grants had diminished over four decades.

The good news for students is that this legislation puts the Pell Grant program on a secure financial base now and into the future. The previous Pell Grant funding process often led to shortfalls, which were compounded by the large number of students returning to school and qualifying for the scholarships. Specifically, the new act invests more than $40 billion in Pell Grants to make up for the current shortfall and ensures all who qualify receive the aid. Further, it funds future increases to keep up with both inflation and the rising costs of college. These investments build upon funding provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the last two federal budgets to more than double the total amount of funding available for Pell Grants.

There is good news for the taxpayer as well. Under this legislation, modifications to the federal student loan program will save taxpayers almost $68 billion over the next decade. The savings can then be reinvested to aid students and help fund other initiatives, such as new training grants for community colleges.

These improvements in the Pell Grant program are critically important to NIC students. Last year, more than 1,800 students received almost $5 million in Pell Grants. This year the number increased dramatically to more than 2,500 NIC students receiving almost $8.5 million. While this may seem like a large number, there are still many, many students who need assistance. The changes to the Pell Grant program will help bridge that gap.

North Idaho College will do its part as well. We will continue our commitment to student success, teaching excellence and lifelong learning. If you would like more information about how you can afford to attend college, contact me at the link below.

Priscilla Bell, Ph.D., is president of North Idaho College. For comments on this column, e-mail her at PresidentsColumn@NIC.EDU.

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