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Education

Assembly hearing to feature push for more part-time student aid

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Later this week an Assembly committee will hold a hearing on improving access to financial aid for college students. One of the issues will be better access for part-time community college students, who are the fastest growing group.

Nearly half of all students enrolled in community colleges in the State and City University of New York systems attend part time, a 10 percent increase from 30 years ago. A New York City based public policy think tank says community colleges play a key role in advancing the poor and working poor into the middle class. The Center for an Urban Future’s Christian Gonzalez-Rivera says there are barriers to obtaining state funded aid for part-time students.

“Too few working adults are really getting the chance to go to school to gain more skills,” Gonzalez-Rivera said.

In order to qualify for the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, a student must first attend community college for two consecutive full-time semesters. Also, under current rules if a student does not graduate in three years, they are no longer eligible for any TAP monies.

The restrictions were put in place so students could demonstrate a commitment to completing a degree, but Gonzalez-Rivera says people holding down a job and raising children often can’t afford to do that.

“You have so many students stuck in a catch-22, where they’re working a job where they don’t see opportunity advancement, they know they need more skills,” said Gonzalez-Rivera. “But basically the doors of opportunity are closed for them because they didn’t go to college right after high school, for whatever reason that might be.”

Gonzalez-Rivera says state aide for part-time courses could actually end of saving money in the long run. He says some students attend full time just to qualify for financial aid, when all they really need is a couple of key courses.

“You’re much more likely to do well if you are only taking the courses that you need,” he said.

The State University of New York agrees that it should be easier for part-time students to obtain financial assistance, and in its own report, required annually by the legislature, has said so. SUNY Spokesman David Doyle says the university system does offer a limited financial aid program for part-time students, with restrictions.

In the report, SUNY recommends that the program be scrapped, and TAP assistance be allocated on a per credit basis instead like in California and Illinois. They estimate it would cost $50 million, but eliminating the present program would save more than $30 million.

Gonzalez-Rivera and SUNY officials plan to testify at the Assembly hearing Wednesday.