Ohio doesn’t have enough college graduates, lagging behind the national average, ranking in the high 30s among the states. That shortfall helps to explain the trend of the past three decades, the state’s average income declining sharply relative to other states.
The hope long has been that the state would mobilize to address the problem. It has started to make gains, notably under Ted Strickland and, more recently, under Gov. John Kasich. Yet too often the efforts have succumbed to other priorities or challenges. One glaring error has been the neglect of need-based college aid, or financial resources routed to those with low incomes.
Policy Matters Ohio noted in a recent report that need-based aid dropped from $352 million in the 2008-2009 biennium to $180 million in the current two-year state budget. That’s a 49 percent reduction. The Cleveland-based think tank added that Ohio had the sharpest decline in need-based college grants of any state in the Midwest.
Of late, the state actually has begun to recover ground. It still has much to do. One area worthy of immediate attention is the plight of students attending two-year community colleges.
In 2009, these students were denied access to state need-based aid, or the Ohio College Opportunity Grant. The state decided federal Pell Grants should cover tuition and fees at community colleges. The trouble is, the state aid is restricted to tuition costs. So, students do not have the option of seeking both grants and using the remainder for such costs as books, child care and transportation.
Predictably enough, the data show a corresponding increase in student loans and debt. Other students may have chosen not to attend. All of this works against the larger interest of the state.
Ohio rightly wants more students, many of them older, looking to enhance their skills, to plunge into higher education. The past several years, the state has been stressing, and rightly so, that a more accessible and affordable entry point is the two-year community college. What good purpose is served then by throwing obstacles in the way of disadvantaged students seeking to apply themselves?
A year ago, the state even added an insult, restoring the state grants to low-income students attending for-profit institutions.
The amount of money hardly is prohibitive for a state that has slashed income tax rates by 31 percent since 2005, with Republicans in charge of the Statehouse now talking about another $400 million in tax reductions. When community college students last were eligible, they received a maximum grant of $2,500, 20,000 students benefiting, the tab at $20 million a year in state assistance.
That is affordable, and smart, fitting neatly into the plans of the governor to upgrade the state’s work force. As it is, the House Study Committee on Higher Education Reform spent part of the summer touring the state. Among the ideas the members consistently heard? Restore the Ohio College Opportunity Grant to community college students. Reverse the restrictions on federal Pell Grants. Community colleges are ready to tailor the grants to meet state goals and priorities.
A state determined to boost its economic performance must move quickly to make the change.