Nontraditional Students and Loans for Community College
Nontraditional students often attend community college, which has the flexibility and affordability that work best for adult learners. There are almost 12 million fulltime and part-time nontraditional students from all walks of life pursuing degrees, professional certificates, and lifelong learning at community colleges from one end of the country to the other.
Nontraditional Students Depend on the Lower Tuition of Community College
The relatively low cost of community college is a tremendous benefit for nontraditional students, many of whom may be single parents, workers in lower-paying jobs, newly laid-off workers, or the first in their family to attend college. Despite some tuition increases, a recent College Board financial aid report noted that tuition and fees for an average community college are still only about 36% of the tuition and fees of an average four-year college.
Federal Student Loans for Community College: A Problem Revealed
Since community colleges provide a substantial higher education service to nontraditional students, you may be surprised to learn that many community colleges don’t offer their students federal student loans. That’s the discovery of the Project on Student Debt, who reported last month that approximately 900,000 community college students in 31 states could not get federal Stafford, Perkins, and PLUS loans because their schools chose not to participate in the federal loan program. (Download a copy of the user-friendly report here.)
The main reason seems to be the schools’ earlier bad experience with the consequences of high student loan default rates. In the 1990s, schools with very high default rates were penalized by being shut out of ALL of federal financial aid programs, including the invaluable Pell Grants that so many nontraditional students depend on. After a few close calls with losing their Pell Grants, those schools developed a little bit of paranoia about offering any more federal student loans.
The good news is that loan default rates have improved a lot since then and no community college has lost access to Pell Grants in many years. The bad news is that old fears die hard and today, thousands of nontraditional students end up having to take out private loans to cover the last of their community college costs when they can’t get Stafford, Perkins, or PLUS loans.
Private loans typically have higher interest rates, more borrower fees, and less protection than federal loans, and can turn into unmanageable debt for the students who can least afford it.
How to Find Out If Your Community College Offers Federal Student Loans
What can you do if you think you may need a student loan for community college? Before you apply, call the financial aid office of the community college(s) you’re considering and ask if they participate in the federal student loan program (Title IV). Be sure to ask specifically about loans (Stafford, Perkins, and PLUS loans), not just the financial aid program in general. (All eligible colleges participate in the federal grants program, but apparently they don’t all participate in the student loan program.)
If it turns out that the community college you were considering does not provide federal student loans, you may want to talk to other community colleges in your area until you find one that does. Community colleges fulfill a vital mission in the higher education service they provide to nontraditional students. Making federal student loans available to students who need them should be part of that mission.