I have what some might call a modest proposal. We should use federal work-study money, which is already in the budget, to pay students to study. They could earn $15 an hour to hit the books instead of flip burgers or fold towels at the gym. Students could use a card to swipe in to a supervised study area to account for their time.
For the past nine years, I have worked at Bunker Hill Community College where much of my job has been trying to keep students on the path to their degrees. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we need to open the discussion beyond how much tuition costs because it’s just a small part of the equation.
For many first-generation, low-income students, their college coursework is just one of several major priorities. Many lack access to basic necessities like food, housing, and medical care. Others may be the sole breadwinners — or at least a primary breadwinner — for their families. Time away from their jobs to study or attend class means less money to keep the lights on in their homes or to keep gas in their gas tanks.
Some might say that many low-income, first-generation students are already getting a free ride because of federal aid. But let’s look at how that often plays out at community colleges through the Pell Grant, a federal aid program.
The maximum federal Pell Grant for the 2016–2017 academic year is $5,815. The average cost of tuition and fees at the 1,100 community colleges across the country is $3,347, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The Pell Grant pays that and often for textbooks, too.
Even with the financial aid, students, often working jobs for 20, 30, or 40 hours a week, are unable to complete the degree or credential they seek.
The obstacle overshadowing tuition alone is crystal clear: grinding Dickensian poverty. And, by that I mean a lack of food. I mean a lack of money for the bus and the MBTA. I mean a difficulty in finding time to study amidst going to class, commuting, and working sometimes two jobs. Funding for tuition just covers, well, tuition. Housing, heat, electricity, food, health insurance, transportation, and childcare still need to be paid. (President Obama’s free community college proposal takes this into account and would allow low-income students to use their grants toward these expenses instead of tuition.)
The issues are the same for a large number of four-year college students. At Salem State, tuition and fees for Massachusetts residents is $9,246. Backed with a full Pell Grant, that leaves $3,431 to pay. Sure that’s a lot of money. But is there any evidence, any studies, or any data that a check for the difference will carry the students to graduation? None I’ve seen. (The Salem State six-year graduation rate is 46 percent, according to U.S. News.)
But, if we pay students to study, we’re sending a clear message that getting a degree is just as important as having a job. Some may try to take advantange of a program like this, but being able to remain in the program would be contingent on maintaining a certain grade point average. In my time working at Bunker Hill, I have seen how big of a difference even just four or five hours a week for homework can make. But many times my students can’t afford losing the $50 they’d make at their minimum wage job. Let’s eliminate the tradeoff between doing an hour of school work versus an hour of wages.
After all of the discussion about getting first-gen students into college and helping them get their degrees, we aren’t much closer to finding a solution to these bigger problems. But one thing is certain. Government officials, legislators, policymakers and even higher education leaders must face the scary and uncomfortable truth that there is crushing poverty among us and that this poverty is a barrier to higher education. Until, we, the people, recognize that poverty, there will be little progress in raising the pitiful college completion rates for low-income students.
Clarification: This column has been updated to include a reference to President Obama’s proposal that calls for free community college tuition.
Wick Sloane teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College.