Community College Leaders Advocate for Broad Affordability Strategy, Greater Collaboration Among States

The 2017 National Legislative Summit opened on Tuesday with The State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley, and Center for American Progress Executive Vice President for Policy Carmel Martin discussing how the changing needs of community colleges should be reflected in federal policy.

The panel discussed the need for community colleges to be flexible. Flexibility in scheduling and course offerings allow community colleges to remain nimble, and to serve both traditional and non-traditional students effectively while keeping costs down.

“They need child care, they need transportation, they need work, and I think if we bundle all of that together we have a very innovative approach to what the HEA (Higher Education Act) could do for us,” Zimpher said.

Through reauthorizing the HEA, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process could be simplified to increase access to and participation in federal aid programs like Pell. According to Martin however, simply lowering or even eliminating tuition and fees will not make community college thoroughly affordable across the board. She identified the general cost of living as an often-overlooked struggle for community college students. Recent ACCT research reports substantiate this claim, showing that a surprisingly high share of community college students have such limited resources that they are forced to choose between homelessness or going hungry and affording college.

Oakley acknowledges this reality, but presents another dimension to the complex task of ensuring students complete their programs. Programs that provide free tuition to qualified students – often called Promise programs – are increasingly prevalent, however they only address tuition. “The free part is [only] one tool in the tool box; it should be a means to an end, it should be part of an overall student success strategy, not just free tuition. Getting students in in California has not been the problem; we have nearly 2.2 million students, we have access…the issue is getting them out. So how do we use that to build a program that speaks to kids in communities where they’re not thinking about college, but also builds an entire structure around them to ensure that they’re successful?”

Part of the reason reinstating Year-Round Pell grants is a priority for ACCT and community colleges is that it creates continuity in learning and allows students to earn their degrees or certificates and start working as soon as possible. 

Oakley continued, “We want to get them to an outcome as quickly as possible so they can get into the workforce. So the more that the federal government can help us and encourage us to create programs that meet employer needs in the moment and we can fill those skills gaps.”  

Uncertainty at the federal level could force innovation to start at the state level.   

“I have to say, I think this a time for the states to really step up, and we are not very well coordinated,” Zimpher said. “The chief higher education officials do meet regularly with the state chiefs of K-12 to try to build some coherence here across 50 states…” Zimpher thinks this is the ideal time for states to collaborate. 

Primary takeaways from the panel’s discussion include…

1.      Reinstating Year-Round Pell will allow students continuity in education and a faster path to a degree, or certificate.

2.      Examining the issue of affordability beyond tuition and fees will give institutions a better understanding of their students’ needs.

3.      Due to uncertainty at the federal level, states should collaborate to drive their institutions forward.

Download the 2017 Community College Federal Legislative Priorities.

For more information about the 2017 Community College National Legislative Summit, contact

Jacob Bray is an associate writer for the Association of Community College Trustees.

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