Wisconsin college students most in need of money to help them through the pandemic were among the least likely to receive it because the federal government’s formula for allocating aid disadvantaged community colleges, experts say.
Congress passed a COVID-19 stimulus package in the spring that funneled about $14 billion to universities and colleges, half of which had to be passed on to students in the form of emergency grants to help them stabilize their lives when campuses suddenly closed and classes moved online.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, distributed money to colleges and universities based on their full-time equivalent student enrollment. The formula shortchanged technical colleges, which serve primarily part-time students who juggle jobs and families, and even in normal times struggle with basic needs like food, housing, child care and transportation.
Many of the nurses, emergency responders, respiratory therapists and other front-line workers deemed essential during the pandemic began their education at a community college. Yet the next generation of those workers in training at these schools were hurt by the formula.
The irony isn’t lost on Wisconsin Technical College System President Morna Foy.
“We’ve always called our students Wisconsin’s essential workforce but the pandemic has demonstrated that again and again,” she said in an interview. “The CARES Act distribution has not been fair to them.”
Few technical college students attend full-time, she said. But regardless of the number of credits taken last spring, every student needed a computer, internet and access to tutoring and advising when colleges switched to online learning in March.
Since the pandemic began, many students have lost their jobs or faced reduced work hours, leading them to pick up more hours, often at a place that pays less. Some of them lost family members or their homes. Others who are parents abruptly found themselves teaching their children on top of their own studies.
Those circumstances forced students to shift priorities and, in some cases, take fewer classes or pause their education entirely.
“My big worry, honestly, is that many of our students are going to get discouraged,” Foy said. “A lot of students have suspended their own academic pursuits.”
No fair shake
Community college enrollment is down across the country compared with last year, a troubling indicator that education experts say could have a longstanding effect on social inequality because these institutions serve students who are more often working-class, first-generation and nonwhite.
Madison Area Technical College, for example, saw a 9% decline in student headcount this fall, according to preliminary figures. Nearly a third of the college’s student body are students of color and about two-thirds of them enroll part-time. Six in every 10 students are over the age of 23.
As Congress considers passing another relief package to offset the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus, higher-education lobbyists are pushing for more money to go to colleges, as well as an overhaul to the formula dictating how much money goes to individual institutions.
“Regardless of what the formula did, there wasn’t enough money” for colleges in general, UW-Madison higher-education professor Nicholas Hillman said. “But if you’ve got limited money, you better be allocating it where it matters the most. And if you were a community college, you didn’t really get a fair shake.”
Hillman runs the university’s Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) lab, which studies college access and affordability. An analysis by the lab found most of Wisconsin’s technical colleges received less money per student from the CARES Act than those attending a University of Wisconsin System institution, private college or for-profit college.
For example, UW-Madison received $422 per student in CARES money whereas MATC, also known as Madison College, got $249 per student.
In fact, while the technical colleges enroll about 38% of the state’s students, they received only 23% of the CARES money that went to Wisconsin college and universities, according to a Wisconsin State Journal analysis.
A national study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found the disparity extended across the country. While community colleges educate almost 40% of students in the U.S., they only received about 27% of the CARES Act funds.
Another barrier: FAFSA
Madison College had nearly 20,000 degree-seeking students last school year, but only about 10,600 filed the federal financial aid form commonly known as FAFSA, according to Keyimani Alford, the college’s dean of student access and success.
That’s a problem because schools had to prove students are eligible for federal financial aid in order to give them a grant and the easiest way to accomplish that is if students completed the FAFSA.
Filling out the form can be daunting for community college students. Many of them are either the first in their family to go to college or are older and living on their own, meaning they don’t have easy access to help from a relative.
Tech colleges have promoted FAFSA to students for years, often hosting workshops to help them through the process, Foy said. But many working students don’t fill it out, believing they are ineligible for financial aid. Veterans are also less likely to complete the form because they receive some other federal aid.
“It’s a huge barrier,” she said. “CARES or no CARES, we want people to fill out the FAFSA. This is a particularly glaring example of how harmful it can be not to.”
Madison College has so far distributed $2.4 million of its $2.75 million in emergency grants to 3,128 students, officials said.
One of those went to Samuel Anderson, who started the one-year welding program this fall while continuing to work full-time for a Middleton landscaping company. He said he received $800 — a little over a month’s worth of rent.
Had Anderson not received the additional support, he said his finances would have been “tight” to make it through the semester while still being able to pay all of his bills.
“It’s definitely helpful,” he said of the money he received.
Madison College has gone to great lengths to help students through the tumult of 2020. It distributed some of its own emergency funds from the college’s foundation to students who were ineligible for CARES grants. It transitioned its campus food pantry to operate drive-through style. It loaned out hundreds of laptops and WiFi hotspots to students facing technological hardship.
Still, Madison College President Jack Daniels continues to hear from students struggling to make ends meet. The federal grants help, but the college has only so much to give when a formula undercounts the number of students it serves.
Community colleges are often left out of the higher education conversation, Daniels said, even though they play an outsize role in teaching students technical skills, helping them move on to four-year schools and providing people who lost their jobs or are seeking to switch careers with new tools.
“Folks just don’t realize our capabilities,” he said.