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Popular tuition aid program cuts out many older, part-time college students

Darlene Ross glanced up from her accounting textbook with a look of relief. After four years, the part-time Erie Community College student and full-time bank employee was just minutes from taking her last exam toward an associate degree in paralegal studies.

“Work and then come to school. It hasn’t been easy,” she said, while studying recently at a cafeteria table in ECC’s City Campus. She wore a winter hat and the satisfied smile of a student on the verge of completing her studies.

“I think, wow, I’m finally done,” she said.

But students like Ross are the exception, not the rule, at ECC and other community colleges across New York. Many part-timers never earn their degrees – and they often cite an inability to pay as a main reason why they don’t finish.

New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, commonly known as TAP, gave $936 million to 372,527 college students statewide last year. It is one of the most generous state-funded financial aid programs in the nation. But for a large and growing segment of students – those who attend part-time – TAP remains largely out of reach. Last year, less than 1 percent of the nearly 150,000 part-time students at New York community colleges received TAP grants, according to a recent study by the Center for an Urban Future.

“When I first saw that number, I thought we had made a mistake. It’s alarming,” said Christian González-Rivera, author of study, “Tapped Out.”

To qualify for TAP, independent students can only make $40,000 or less. If they’re dependent children, they must live in a household with an income of $80,000 or less. The grants range from $500 to $5,165 per year. In addition to income guidelines, part-time students must also complete two consecutive semesters of 12 credit hours each before gaining eligibility.

Many part-time students work and have families. They often return to the classroom later in life, sometimes as part of a career change. Few are able to meet the credit-hour threshold, which amounts to full-time coursework for a year. Advocates for higher education said that the restrictions on part-time aid are outdated and unfairly favor a relatively small group of traditional college-bound students freshly graduated from high schools.

“Our statewide student body is much different today from what it was in 1974, when TAP was established,” said Steven London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York. “The way many students attend school today is different, as well. We no longer live in the Ozzie and Harriet world that TAP seems to have envisioned at its outset.”

Those changes are most apparent at the state’s 36 community colleges, where part-time students now account for 42 percent of total enrollment, up from 32 percent in 1980. At ECC, 34 percent of the students are age 25 or older, and part-time students compose about one-third of the student body.

TAP remains geared toward traditional college students, even though that pool of students keeps shrinking in New York. An estimated 169,883 high school seniors will graduate in 2015. At the same time, the Center for an Urban Future study found the state has a huge pool of potential students – 5.8 million people – who are over age 25 and are already working, but need additional training and education.

“If New York State is going to have a competitive labor force, we need to have as many people as possible with a post secondary degree,” said González-Rivera. “For many working adults, having access to financial aid means the difference between going to college part time or not going to college at all.”

Juggling families

González-Rivera and other advocates are pushing lawmakers to eliminate the full-time-for-two-semesters requirement and make TAP awards on a pro-rated basis for part-time students. New York is one of 14 states that limit or exclude part-time students from their need-based grant programs, he said.

If she were to attend ECC on a full-time basis, Briana Gray of Cheektowaga likely would be eligible for TAP. But Gray, 26, can’t leave her full-time job as a licensed practical nurse to further her studies in nursing. She supports herself and a 7-year-old daughter. So she gets no TAP aid.

To attend ECC part-time, Gray cobbles together her own money and some aid from the federal Pell grant program. She gets a small amount of state money through a lesser-known program, Aid for Part Time Study, or APTS. This past semester, she also had to take out a $3,500 student loan.

“My books alone were $650,” said Gray. “Every little bit helps.”

Gray originally enrolled in college in 2006 after graduating from high school. She was working at the time, as well. Then, she stopped going to college altogether, and her daughter, Eyana, was born.

In 2011, she enrolled at ECC part-time again, taking a course or two each semester. She expects to finish her associate degree in three more semesters. The reward will be a $5 per hour increase in pay, she said.

“It’s very difficult, but you know you just got to do it. It can be done,” she said.

Ross, 61, took out more than $12,000 in loans to make it through ECC.

“I had to jump through hoops in order to obtain financing to complete my education,” she said.

While it’s too late for her to benefit from the proposed TAP changes, she said they make sense because “it’s not an easy path” for part-time students.

“Some of them have families and everything else to juggle,” she said.

Younger full-time students fresh out of high school aren’t as serious about education, she added.

Ross remembers being the same way years ago when she graduated from high school and squandered a chance at postsecondary education.

“I was a kid. I wasn’t serious, like a lot of kids,” she said. “And then life happened. I got married, had kids.”

Years later, she put in the work to earn her degree, which she hopes will lead to a better-paying and more fulfilling job, possibly with a nonprofit organization that helps senior citizens.

Expanding TAP to part-time students could be a financial boon for community colleges, many of which are struggling to maintain their main source of revenue – tuition – because they have fewer students on campus. ECC’s enrollment is down nearly 7 percent this year compared with 2013-14.

“Our clientele increasingly are students with other things in their lives, like jobs and families,” said Ben Packer, executive vice president for student affairs at ECC. “Any effort to give part-time students more aid is of course going to have a tremendous impact, especially at our campuses.”

Albany involvement

For more than four hours earlier this month, Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, listened as college administrators, students, faculty members and others testified at a public hearing in Albany on how to improve the state’s mammoth financial aid program.

Glick, who heads the Assembly Standing Committee of Higher Education, said she wanted to explore ways to make TAP “more flexible and more user friendly” for today’s students. Although New York’s fiscal climate has improved, it’s not clear yet whether any expansion of TAP will receive broad political support in Albany.

In the hearing, Glick seemed sympathetic to calls for changes that would allow more part-time students to use TAP. But any new system must be structured in a way that encourages degree completion in a timely fashion, Glick said.

“The push back is about the concern that if they go part time, then it will take forever for them to finish,” she said.

SUNY officials proposed the possibility of a credit-based approach to funding TAP – a method that would add an estimated $50 million to the annual cost of TAP due to an influx of eligible part-time students.

New York’s APTS program benefits a small number of part-time students with an average grant worth $613, which advocates say is far too little to help students. The state could save $14.6 million by folding the APTS program into TAP and applying those funds toward a more robust part-time TAP program.

“We never want to eliminate any funding for our students but we want to look at it and say, ‘Could that be better used?’ ” said Patricia Thompson, SUNY’s assistant vice president of student financial aid.

In Glick’s hearing, some speakers also advocated for extending financial aid to undocumented immigrants and for raising the maximum TAP awards to $6,500 per year. The State Senate also has proposed changes to TAP. Last summer, the Senate passed a bill that would increase the maximum TAP grant to $6,470 in 2015. The bill would raise the maximum income eligibility to $100,000, as well.

Another Senate bill that passed would allow community college students who meet academic and financial aid requirements to be reimbursed by the state for their tuition expenses.