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Report - December 2014

Tapped Out

While a growing number of New Yorkers are enrolling in community colleges on a part-time basis, the state’s main financial aid program is out of reach for most of them.

by Christian González-Rivera

Tags: economic opportunity workforce development human capital low income higher education community colleges

Less Aid Available for Part-Time Study
Part-time students are also disadvantaged when it comes to non-state grants, low-cost loans and aid amounts through TAP and other non-TAP programs. While the average full-time student will get enough in grants to cover 36 percent of their financial needs, the average part-time undergraduate, a much larger percentage of whom are independent and working in low-wage jobs, finds that only 20 percent of their financial needs can be met by grants.16 Part-timers have to spend more out of pocket for books, housing, transportation and other necessities.

Among the scholarships listed on CUNY’s website, full-time students are eligible for 39 and part-time students for only two. Meanwhile, students who study less than half-time aren’t eligible for many low-cost loan programs; and even when they manage to qualify for PTAP, many working students receive less in support because they can’t be claimed as dependents, don’t have children and make more than the stipulated income threshold, which many educators and counselors believe to be too low. In order to qualify for TAP, working students who are considered to be ‘independent’ for tax purposes must earn $10,000 Net Taxable Income per year (or approximately $23,000 gross per year) or less in order to qualify for state aid.  “It makes absolutely no sense,” says Cassie Magesis, the deputy director of college readiness at The Urban Assembly. “It’s very detrimental for people who are independent, who need the money more than anyone.  As a counselor I have to answer questions like, ‘You mean, if my mom was around I would have gotten those extra $2,000?’ It’s really infuriating.”

“There are a lot more financial aid options to choose from for full-time students,” says Jimenez of the Goddard Riverside Community Center. “They can get more money from Pell and get access to loans, and they can also get TAP. But many of the part-time students we see are working adults and they can’t go to school full time, and so they miss out.”

Grants Cover a Smaller Share of In-State Part-Time Students’ Financial Need in New York State Colleges, AY 2007-200817
  Full-Time Part-Time
Average need $17,500 $8,600
Average remaining need after grants $11,200 $6,800
Percent of need met by grants 36% 20%
Average Federal loans borrowed $5,200 $4,400
Average Private loans borrowed $9,800 $4,800


The only other state program that provides grant aid to part-time students is the New York State Aid for Part Time Study (APTS) program, which was created in 1984 in order to provide some limited assistance to part-time students. However, while TAP is available to eligible students on an entitlement basis—everyone who is eligible for an award will receive one if they meet the eligibility requirements—APTS is a fixed amount of money that the state gives colleges based on the number of part-time students they had the previous year. Colleges with higher part-time enrollment will have more funds available, and those with less will have less available; schools with few part-time students may get as little as $15,000 from the state, while schools with a large number of part-time students may get around $250,000. In the 2012-13 school year, a total of $10.2 million was available statewide for disbursement through the APTS program, which, divided over 16,183 recipients, yielded an average award of only $631.18

As a result of its small size, the APTS program, though helpful to some, doesn’t come close to meeting the need among part-time students.

Responding to the incredible increase in demand for college level training among working New Yorkers and other nontraditional students and providing them with the supports they need to advance toward a degree or professional certification will require significant reforms to TAP. 

Budget cuts leave out part-time students
The biggest barrier to extending TAP to the state’s working adults and other potential nontraditional students is a budgetary one. Since TAP is an entitlement program, the state is required by law to present an award to any eligible applicant. Legislators looking to trim state costs by reducing the size of the program will seek to limit the pool of eligible applicants by restricting the eligibility criteria. The legislature has voted to do this on several occasions, notably in 2007 when they cut off access to TAP to students who are in default on federal student loans, and in 2010 when they eliminated TAP awards for graduate students. Indeed, our conversations with legislators and their staff have shown that the fear of runaway costs is the biggest obstacle to the state taking action on extending TAP to part-time students.

But, in fact, allowing more part-time students to access TAP may not lead to the runaway costs that legislators fear. While expanding eligibility is likely to increase demand for higher education in the state, students taking a full-time course load in order to be eligible for TAP would instead be able to receive a reduced, pro-rated grant, reducing costs to the state and alleviating a burden for students. Being able to assume a manageable schedule will allow many students to successfully complete the number of credits they attempt, putting them on firmer footing to eventually complete a degree.

Evidence of this can be found right here in New York State in the results of the PTAP pilot program run at CUNY between 2000 and 2003, which resulted in the adoption of PTAP statewide. During the three-year pilot period, CUNY disbursed $4 million in PTAP to 5,267 students, for an average award of $759 per term. CUNY and the state decided to pay for the PTAP pilot by reducing the per-credit award rates under APTS, thereby making the project cost-neutral to the state. Nonetheless, CUNY ended up saving nearly a half million dollars in aid expenditures. The single biggest reason for the savings, according to researchers, was the dramatic reduction in the number of students who were taking extra classes only in order to qualify for full-time TAP.19

The results of the pilot also present evidence that PTAP can contribute to greater academic success. During the CUNY pilot, PTAP recipients had an average GPA of 2.7 compared to 2.6 for APTS recipients and all degree-seeking undergraduates. That part-time students were performing at around the same level as full-time students is a remarkable result, given that part-time students are more likely to have responsibilities outside of school.

That being said, more accessible PTAP may also increase the number of New Yorkers who decide to go back to school. Although no cost analyses exist that would estimate the potential cost of additional people deciding to pursue their education on a part-time basis, it is reasonable to assume that because the students would be attending part-time, the cost to the state of giving smaller, prorated awards to part-time students would be spread out over a longer time period, which would avoid significant year-over-year jumps in the cost of the program.

Despite the concern over runaway costs, the state senate recently passed a bill to expand the maximum income eligibility for dependent students from $80,000 to $100,000, which would cost an estimated $90.8 million per year.20 While there are no doubt many deserving students who would benefit from this legislation, low-income, working adults who study part-time deserve to be a part of the discussion as well. In a recent report, SUNY researchers claimed that a credit-based, part-time TAP award would have major benefits for students and recommended an appropriation of $50 million to use towards such a program. At the same time, the report recommended that part of that appropriation be funded by eliminating APTS, resulting in a net cost to the state of $35.4 million.21 Such an appropriation would make New York State a leader in supporting its part-time student population.

Importantly, the ability to return to school with financial support would allow working adults to complete unfinished degrees while continuing to work, which when coupled with additional student supports would go a long way towards increasing average levels of educational achievement in New York State. As the Center for an Urban Future demonstrated in Completion Day (June, 2013), the economic benefit of increased educational achievement would provide a big return on investment: a 10 percentage point increase in the state’s community college graduation rate would provide a $150 million one-year boost to the state economy in the form of higher incomes, increased economic activity due to increased spending, and in more of the taxpayers’ investment in postsecondary education resulting in graduates rather than dropouts.22

Many education experts believe that financial aid policy should encourage students to attend college full-time, citing full-time students’ larger graduation rates. But, in fact, little research has been done on how part-time students would fare with the right supports, including financial aid and counseling.23  As noted earlier, experts in Illinois believe that many students do better when they start out part-time and gradually increase their course load in later semesters. 

What other states are doing for part-time students
Only 14 states join New York in excluding students who matriculate as part-time from their need-based grant programs. New York’s TAP and California’s CalGrant are alone among state grant aid programs in that they are entitlement-based. Unlike TAP, however, CalGrant allows part-time students to receive an award during their first year. In academic year 2007-2008 the last year for which data are available, California disbursed an average award of $1,800 to part-time students, reaching 31 percent of all part-time students.24

In Illinois, the need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) provides grants to full-time and part-time students in one integrated system. MAP has been open to half-time students since 1974 and open to less than half-time students since 1999. In fiscal year 2014, the program awarded $372.2 million in grants to Illinois college students, making it the third largest need-based, non-merit state grant program in the nation. Twenty percent of MAP recipients attended college part-time, but received 9 percent of MAP funds, which are pro-rated based on the number of credits attempted. As in New York, independent students are more likely to attend part-time, and the state’s community colleges had larger shares of part-time students than private, proprietary or public four-year institutions; 27 percent of dependent students and 52 percent of independent students at Illinois community colleges attended part-time. While in New York 39 percent of community college students either graduate or transfer to a four-year institution within three years, in Illinois 48 percent of community college students do so.25

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission—the entity that administers MAP, that state’s equivalent to New York’s HESC—is currently in the third year of a five-year longitudinal study that is surveying MAP recipients to assess the impact of the state financial aid grants on student retention and advancement, particularly for lower-income and independent students. The responses analyzed in the study have so far generated a wealth of information that documents who MAP recipients are and what barriers they face to completing their degrees. It is reasonable to assume that many of the barriers that Illinois students face are similar to those faced by their counterparts in New York.

For instance, the study found that three out of every four independent students are parents, and that three-quarters of those are single parents. Independent students were most likely to report that the primary reason for choosing to attend college is to “find a better job and earn more money,” which is consistent with anecdotal evidence from New York. Most (77 percent) attend community colleges, and the top two reasons given for selecting a particular school were the degree programs offered (selected by 84 percent of respondents) and the cost of attendance (83 percent).

When asked what their main reasons were for choosing to attend college part-time, nearly half of part-time respondents at all types of institutions cited the need to work full-time and “family reasons.” Additional reasons given were the need to take care of their children (offered by 38 percent of respondents) and not wanting to take out loans for education (16 percent).

There is also evidence in Illinois’ results that independent students are taking college as an opportunity to redeem themselves academically. College GPAs among independent student MAP recipients were 0.36 points higher on average than their high school GPAs, which is in contrast with dependent students whose average college GPAs were about a half a grade lower than their high school GPAs.

Officials in Illinois understand that in order to increase statewide postsecondary degree attainment rates, it needs to create financial aid solutions that work for working adults. “We have a state goal of 60 percent of the workforce having a postsecondary credential by 2025,” says Susan Kleeman, the research and policy director at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. “We know that the cheapest way to acquire these credentials is to have adult students return to school, particularly those who have already started programs but have left for some reason. It’s a good idea for them to continue semester to semester, so if in any semester they feel they can’t take two classes and can only take one, we think it’s better for them to stay in the system instead of drop out altogether.”

This profile of grant recipients in Illinois is illustrative of the challenges that working adults face in going back to college, and of the opportunity the state has to significantly lower the barriers to completion by expanding access to financial aid.


Recommendations

Eliminate the requirement that students attend full-time for two consecutive semesters before receiving Part-Time TAP (PTAP) and pro-rate awards to the number of credits attempted
The single biggest barrier for working adults and other students who have no choice but to attend college part-time is the year of full-time study that is currently required before a student becomes eligible for PTAP. Eliminating that requirement would allow students to attend part-time from the beginning of their college career, enabling them to more effectively plan their education while balancing outside obligations.

Start a pilot program extending TAP to a select group of part-time students and evaluate the results
While it stands to reason that financial aid is a crucial component of a student’s decision about whether to start or continue college, researchers know relatively little about the impact of financial aid schemes on the outcomes of nontraditional students. Establishing a stronger evidence base will both help make the case for reforms and identify effective interventions. A pilot program and study that waived the requirement of two semesters of full-time study and included a strong financial aid and academic advisement component could lead to positive results.

Fold TAP, PTAP, and APTS into one centralized New York State financial aid system with eligibility based solely on income
TAP currently consists of seven active award schedules that determine award amounts for students based on first year of enrollment, dependency status, and income. In addition to being incredibly complicated for financial aid administrators to manage and students to understand, these schedules yield vastly lower average awards for independent students and other nontraditional students, making it difficult for working adults to get aid to go back to school. The state should collapse these multiple schedules into a single schedule based on the most recent maximum awards for qualifying students, one that is that is pro-rated based on the number of credits a student is attempting. This would make TAP equitable for both full- and part-time students, and eliminate the extreme disadvantage that nontraditional students face under the current system. To further simplify the system, the eligibility guidelines for this streamlined TAP program should be matched to those of the federal Pell—like many other states do—so as to reduce confusion around eligibility from students and financial aid administrators.

Extend the TAP eligibility window to ensure students are supported throughout their college careers
TAP is currently limited to six semesters for associate’s degree candidates and eight semesters for bachelor’s degree candidates. This eligibility window is too narrow to accommodate part-time students who are likely to pursue their degrees beyond this time. This is especially true for the considerable number of students who use up part of their TAP eligibility to take remedial classes. The state should extend the eligibility window to ten years to ensure that students can have state grant aid available for however long it takes to complete their degrees.

Make TAP available in the summer
Continuity and credit accretion across consecutive semesters is essential to ensuring that students stay on track to complete their studies in as short a time as possible. Yet, because TAP and Pell are not available during the summer, students who cannot afford to pay for summer courses out of pocket do not have the option of taking summer courses, and so remain disconnected from school for those months. In 2008, the Obama administration amended the Higher Education Act to approve funding for summer Pell, and in the first year 6.1 million students nationwide received summer Pell grants.26 By 2010, that number had increased 45 percent to 8.9 million.27  In 2012, the administration rescinded the funding for summer Pell, citing budget shortfalls. The government had estimated that it would have spent nearly $5 billion in summer Pell, which amounted to 14 percent of the budget for the program.28

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