Paying for college is perhaps the greatest barrier that students face when seeking an education that leads to a career. Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard delivered that authoritative message to lawmakers when she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on February 6 about college affordability. The committee has been holding ongoing hearings ahead of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Dr. Pollard was one of five witnesses—and the only college president on the panel.
Dr. Pollard began her powerful testimony by sharing the challenges she faced: “As a college student from a low-income household myself, I worked three part-time jobs and relied on food stamps while attending college. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was the first in my family to go to college, and my father struggled mightily with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Ultimately, those federal loans and Pell grants got me through college, but they would not have enabled me to complete in today’s economy.”
Here is a summary of her testimony:
“Affordability is the biggest challenge facing community college students today. The American college student of 2018 is not the one that so many of us imagine: a recent high school graduate, at a four-year school, living in a dorm, and relying on parental support. Community college students today are people who grew up in households without a college graduate; they are low income people; they are displaced workers, returning workers, and immigrants; they are women; they are often people of color. Many of them are so daunted by the cost of higher education that they do not enroll. Others enroll, but do not complete their degrees because of the high cost of living.
The Montgomery College Foundation distributed $2.4 million in scholarships in FY17, July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017.
Two-thirds of the 8,600 Pell grant recipients at Montgomery College have an Expected Family Contribution of zero dollars. Their average income in 2018 is $24,864. Community colleges like Montgomery College in Maryland expend extraordinary energy and resources trying to support students’ financial needs beyond tuition so that they can complete their studies.
Our college, like many others in the nation, has food pantries, a clothing library, loaner laptops, and free shuttle buses. We know that any of these extra expenses could break the budget of a student living on the edge. The College is supported by a foundation that even provides emergency aid to students for utilities and rent. The Montgomery College Foundation distributed $2.4 million in scholarships in FY17, July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017. The College also offers special academic support programs, financial aid coaching, and personal mentoring to help students navigate college while working and caring for family members.
The reason that so many students leave college without completing their degrees is not complex—it comes down to finances. Several strategies by the federal government could provide support that would transform these outcomes that cripple people’s job prospects, their earning potential, and their ability to contribute to our nation’s skilled workforce: increase the amount of Pell grants; tie Pell amounts to inflation; simplify the FAFSA and certification processes; and make workforce development training programs eligible for Pell. Increasing the buying potential of the Pell grant and making the FAFSA more accessible would work wonders in moving more students to degrees.
As the Truman Commission on Higher Education saw so clearly in 1947 when it expanded the reach of community colleges, investments in higher education for more students benefit us all.
Visit the MC News site to read the full transcript of Dr. Pollard’s testimony and to watch the video.