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Food for Thought: Tapped Out

This week’s piece is a Center for an Urban Future report. Tapped Out was written by Christian González-Rivera and edited by David Giles and Jonathan Bowles.  Additional research support from Barbara Wijering-van Wijk and Esther Kim.

New York’s community colleges have a key role to play in elevating poor and working poor New Yorkers into the ranks of the middle class. The economy is producing few decent-paying jobs for people with only a high school diploma, and community colleges offer the most accessible path for people to obtain a post-secondary credential. However, tens of thousands of New Yorkers who can only afford to enroll in these institutions on a part-time basis are struggling to remain in school long enough to earn a credential—and one of the biggest reasons is the state’s outdated financial aid system, which effectively bars part-timers from benefiting from the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

Part-time students now account for 42 percent of those enrolled at SUNY and CUNY community colleges, up from 32 percent in 1980. Yet, in 2013, less than 1 percent of the nearly 150,000 part-time students enrolled at the state’s 36 community colleges received financial aid through the state’s TAP program. At CUNY community colleges, just 91 out of nearly 40,000 part-time students received TAP funds to help pay for school that year.

The TAP program is comparatively generous in other ways, but New York is one of only 14 states to sharply limit access to part-time students. The state’s eligibility rules require that students be enrolled full-time for two consecutive semesters before they can enroll part-time and still qualify for TAP.1 And once they meet these requirements, students are only eligible for a total of six semesters of schooling.

These restrictions are a big reason why so few part-time students who enroll in community colleges actually earn a degree or professional certification. The 6-year graduation rate at the state’s 36 public community colleges is 35 percent (29 percent at CUNY community colleges), but the rates for part-timers are even lower. Nationally, research has found that student debt and lack of access to financial aid are the key problems associated with low completion rates.

Some educators have argued that policymakers should not be encouraging students to enroll part-time, since data suggests that full-time students have a higher likelihood of graduating. But scores of poor and working poor New Yorkers with family obligations or paltry savings simply can’t afford to quit their jobs and enroll in classes full-time. Instead of excluding thousands of low-income students from financial aid opportunities because they can’t afford to attend school full time, state officials should give these residents the tools to succeed in college. Easing TAP’s eligibility restrictions for part-timers is a good place to start. To read the full report, click here.