Read: The real lesson of the college closures
Political will also undermines support for community colleges. In the case of the CARES Act funds, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos allocated disproportionate support to a cohort of 20 small, private, mostly religious colleges that serve fewer than 3,000 students combined. She even sent $472,850 in taxpayer support to the Bergin University of Canine Studies, which enrolls only 60 students, including 24 undergraduates.
About 50 percent of the CARES dollars for higher education are direct emergency grants to help students facing financial crises pay for food, housing, child care, and more. Living expenses constitute the majority of the cost of attending community college. While tuition and fees averaged $3,730 for the 2019–20 school year, the average cost of attendance was closer to $17,000 when food, books and supplies, transportation, housing, and other expenses were factored in. Even accounting for financial aid, 18 percent of students attending community colleges face a price higher than their family’s total income. This is why in our 2019 #RealCollege survey (conducted before the pandemic) my team at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that nearly one in two community-college students experienced food or housing insecurity, and about 17 percent experienced homelessness in the past year. Without having their basic needs met, students can’t be expected to do well in school and complete degrees.
Read: Millions of college students are going hungry
At the California Community Colleges, one of the world’s largest systems of higher education, an estimated 70 percent of its nearly 2.2 million students were facing basic-needs insecurity before the pandemic. According to the legislation’s criteria, an estimated one in two CCC students should have received direct CARES support to help with those challenges. But DeVos decided otherwise, creating new rules mandating that if students are ineligible for federal financial assistance (determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA), then they are also ineligible for CARES support. According to a federal lawsuit filed by Eloy Oakley, the CCC chancellor, this eliminated support for an estimated 800,000 CCC students, including 26,000 students with disabilities, 12,000 veterans, and 80,000 students training to be first responders.
Oakley was right to sue—Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has just joined him—and more lawsuits may be required to ensure that adequate public funding is distributed equitably to students around the country. Many community-college students cannot file a FAFSA for the same reasons they chose a community college in the first place—they are more likely to have attended under-resourced K–12 schools with few college supports, or are undocumented, justice impacted, or estranged from their parents. DeVos’s new guidance worked to the advantage of colleges and universities that, as the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights have found, turn away more students than they admit, carefully crafting their classes to achieve high graduation rates without promoting social mobility. These institutions already enjoy larger endowments and serve relatively small numbers of undergraduates; further public investments in them will hardly propel a national recovery. Yet the Trump administration continues to leave community colleges out of the conversation. On May 14, Vice President Mike Pence and DeVos held a call with leaders from 14 schools to discuss reopening in the fall. Not one community-college president was included.