‘It’s not just about tuition, it’s about how I’m going to eat’: Over 50% of community colleges are not affordable for low-income students

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Seven years after graduating high school Ciara Harris drove past a billboard that inspired her to add another responsibility on top of her waitressing job. 

“It had some inspirational quote on it, and it said Lansing Community College,” said Harris, recalling the moment two years ago. (Lansing billboards have the slogan, “Start here. Get there.”)

“Literally the next week I was a college student,” said Harris, who had gone straight to work after high school to help support her family.

Harris, 26, covered her tuition through a combination of grants and scholarships, including the Pell grant, the funding the government provides to low-income students to attend college. But to afford her other bills, Harris had to keep working 40 to 60 hour work weeks as a manager, server and cook at her local diner. 


‘It’s not just about tuition, it’s about how I’m going to eat.’


— Ciara Harris, 26, who worked during her first year of community college

“I never took a single day off the first year,” she said. “When you think about people going back to school to better their lives, you really need to think about the full cost of going to school. It’s not just about tuition, it’s about how I’m going to eat.”

(Lansing Community College declined to comment.)

Harris is one of millions of students — or potential students — for whom attending community college, the most affordable type of higher education, requires a major financial sacrifice.

Ciara Harris will transfer to the University of Michigan and plans to become a lawyer.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, just 41% of community colleges were affordable for the average Pell grant recipient, according to an analysis released this month by the National College Attainment Network. That’s down from 49% during the 2014-2015 academic year. 

“College is getting increasingly unaffordable for Pell Grant recipients each year,” said Carrie Warick, the network’s director of policy and advocacy. The organization’s definition of affordable was designed “for a student doing everything right, and really giving the benefit of the doubt to the institution.”  

But even given that generous reading, which accounts for contributions from grants, loans, work-study wages, summer work earnings, as well as family, Pell grant recipients were short $855 in covering tuition, basic bills, like housing and food, and $300 for emergencies, the organization found. That’s up from $240 during the 2014-2015 academic year. 

At four-year schools, the situation is even more troubling. Just 23% of public four-year colleges were affordable by the organization’s definition and Pell grant recipients face an average gap of $2,524. 

The data comes as the Biden administration is considering several proposals to address college affordability — including making community college free and increasing the maximum Pell grant award by $1,400 — and as the White House is facing pressure from advocates and lawmakers to cancel some student debt. 

Even when students work and attend the cheapest college available they can struggle to afford tuition and live

The analysis underscores that even when students attend the cheapest college available to them and work, they can still struggle to afford to pay for school and live.

That dynamic has been particularly evident during the pandemic when community colleges saw sharp enrollment declines as students and potential students coped with lost income in some cases and increased family and work responsibilities in others. 


Whether a student has access to affordable community college is in large part a function of where they live.

Whether a student has access to affordable community college is in large part a function of where they live. States vary widely in their level of investment in public higher education and, therefore, in the amount tuition is subsidized by the government — and how much is paid by students. 

In the state where Harris lives, Michigan, roughly 60% of community colleges were affordable, according to the National College Attainment Network definition, including Lansing Community College, Harris’ school. Lawmakers there also recently launched two programs offering free community college tuition for front line workers and students over the age of 25. 

More than 120,000 people applied to the front-line worker program in the four months after its launch in September, which suggests to Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, that a government commitment to pay community college tuition could push more students to attend.  

“It really is a game-changing conversation around the dinner table to say, ‘Well that barrier is now gone,’’’ he said. 

Still, Hansen said, just because tuition is covered doesn’t always mean a student can afford to attend school. If going to college “means you have to give up a job or find daycare or find transportation, that adds to the affordability complexity and often overshadows the actual tuition costs.” 

Balancing classes with three jobs

The challenge of balancing work and school is part of what pushed Zy-Ann Russell to attend college part time.

Russell, 21, has also been studying at Lansing Community College for three years and has one year left before earning an associate’s degree. At times, she’s worked three jobs — including retail, for RISE, a youth advocacy organization, and UPS — in addition to school. 


‘That’s my plan: To live within my means, or below, or as long as it takes for me to crush the student debt.’


— Zy-Ann Russell, 21, has one year left before completing her associate’s degree

Now, she’s only working at UPS, but even that one job requires a busy schedule. She wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning, spends her shift loading boxes onto trucks and then heads home to attend classes, which the past two semesters have been remote. 

Russell’s tuition is covered through scholarships and grants, but she works to pay her other expenses, including food, housing and gas. When she lived with her family, Russell also used her earnings to contribute household bills. 

So far, Russell has been able to avoid taking on student loans, but she knows that will change if she fulfills her goal of transferring to a four-year university to study civil engineering.

Once she graduates, Russell plans to find a cheap apartment and keep her car, which is a 2008 model, so that she can put as much money as possible towards her student loans. 

“That’s my plan: To live within my means, or below, or as long as it takes for me to crush the student debt,” she said. “I know how much that can really hold people back and I can’t have that.” 

An earlier version of this story misstated Carrie Warick’s title. She is the director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network.



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