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Adults forced to borrow more to attend college

Adults studying at community colleges in Ohio are borrowing nearly $1,000 more to pay for their education since the state effectively ended its need-based financial aid program for students at two-year colleges in 2009, a new study found.

Community Research Partners found that the state’s policy making students at two-year schools ineligible for the Ohio College Opportunity Grant has resulted in college being less accessible to low-income and nontraditional students.

“There’s no question that students have had to borrow more money,” said David Devier, Clark State Community College’s vice president of academic and student affairs.

Gov. John Kasich has suggested Ohio increase its investment in the grants, commonly known as OCOG, by 2.3 percent — which would bring the program to nearly $88 million in both fiscal year 2014 and 2015. However, the aid still would only be available only to eligible students who attend public university main campuses and private not-for-profit and for-profit institutions. The award would go to more than 90,000 students, according to Kasich’s budget, which requires the approval of the state legislature. It would still not be available to community college students and those attending regional campuses of universities.

Community Research Partners, which is based in Columbus, and the Ohio Association of Community Colleges are calling on state lawmakers to redesign the way the state’s need-based financial aid is distributed. Among the ideas, the association is asking Ohio to incentive students to train for in-demand jobs and provide them help in earning certificates and not just degrees.

“If we’re going to meet the needs of the workforce in Ohio, we’ve got to continue to serve and provide opportunities for the nontraditional adults,” said Ronald Abrams, president of the association. “Typically, those are the same kinds of folks who utilize state financial aid, and it’s not available.”

The research says Ohio lags behind in aid for students compared to neighboring states that compete with Ohio for jobs.

The state made the change to OCOG in 2009 along with other overall budget cuts. Because needy students can qualify for the federal Pell Grant to cover their tuition and fees, state aid was directed to students are more expensive institutions.

The assumption was that low-income students at the less expenses schools could afford to attend without the additional state aid, according to the Community Research Partners. But, the group says, that assumption “was not accurate in 2009, but is even less so in 2013.” Annual tuition at community colleges on average has increased $372 since 2008, according to the report.

While OCOG can only pay for tuition and fees, the Pell Grant can be used for other education-related expenses, such as transportation and child care. They estimate unmet need for students receiving the Pell Grant at community colleges range from $3,000 to $5,400.

“Ohio is now well on its way to recovery and faces a different set of challenges — not enough educated and skilled workers to meet the needs of employers who are looking to grow jobs in Ohio,” the report says.

Sinclair Community College spokesman Adam Murka said although Sinclair students pay the lowest tuition in the state, they still need additional support. Sinclair’s tuition and fees is about $92 per credit hour for Montgomery County residents (who pay a levy to support the school), compared to Clark State’s $132 per credit hour for Ohio residents. In the last year of OCOG in 2008, Sinclair students received $4 million.

Devier said community college students can also struggle to pay the cost of living while they try to improve their education and change their lives.

“If we were to have a return of the OCOG, it would be very beneficial, there’s no question about it,” he said. “It would be a boon to our students. They would definitely have lower debt when they leave.”

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