Students receiving fee waivers at California’s 112 community colleges could be required to work towards a clearly identified educational goal and be limited in the number of courses they could take.
These new requirements are among several recommendations made by the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force charged with bolstering the odds of students reaching their educational goals.
In its draft report the task force took aim at what are known as Board of Governor’s fee waivers, usually called BOG fee waivers, awarded to mostly low-income students. These waivers cover only fees levied on courses, currently $36 per unit (up from $26 last year). A typical course has 3 to 4 units.
There is now no limit on the number of units students may take using the fee waiver, and no requirement that students receiving them pass their courses.
Peter MacDougall, the task force chair and president emeritus of Santa Barbara Community College, said the recommendation is intended not just to keep community college students focused on educational goals, but also to “make sure these funds are spent effectively and wisely.” Students who receive financial support, he said, “should both have a clear goal and make satisfactory progress towards that goal.”
About 50 percent of all California Community College students now study using fee waivers. That figure has gone up in recent years, possibly because of the state’s tough economic times. Four or five years ago, only about 42 to 43 percent of California Community College students received them.
The task force wants to require students receiving fee waivers to “identify a degree, certificate, transfer or career advancement goal” and meet “institutional satisfactory progress standards” to remain eligible.
The task force is also recommending limiting the number of units covered by the fee waiver to 110. That’s 50 units more than the 60 required to earn an associate degree or to transfer to a four-year university.
MacDougall says he believes the 110-unit limit is reasonable, because it would allow students the equivalent of almost four full years of study—enough time to switch majors or career certificates.
Fee waivers are available to students who receive certain public assistance benefits, have very low income relative to their household size, or qualify for financial aid according to the Federal Need Analysis.
Recommendations Would Ensure Accountability, Possibly Save Money
Michelle Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy group promoting college access, says she believes the recommendation “makes common sense.”
“We want to make sure that students aren’t just taking and dropping classes, or taking and failing classes without any repercussions,” says Siqueiros. She adds that on the whole, the draft report recommendations “provide some much-needed reform in making sure the community college system works effectively in moving students in and through.”
The proposed requirements on fee waivers are not new territory for student aid, says Siqueiros. Federal Pell Grants and Cal Grants have similar requirements that students work toward an educational goal and meet adequate academic progress.
The draft recommendation states that adopting and implementing the recommendation would save approximately $89 million per year. Erik Skinner, executive vice chancellor for programs at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, cautions that the figure may be overstated.
He says it’s difficult to ascertain how much savings would be realized by placing limitations on the waivers. If the recommendation is successful, he says, all students would be working toward an educational goal and therefore would still be eligible for the waivers, so no savings would be realized. On the other hand, savings would occur if students not working toward an educational goal begin paying fees to continue their studies.
Skinner adds that the proposed fee waiver requirements would be enforced on the campus level, but details on implementation have not been worked out. The recommendation calls for a “series of active interventions to ensure that students facing difficulties do not lose financial aid eligibility.” Again, the specifics of those interventions would need to be delineated. And the recommendation calls for an appeals process when students face a loss of fee waivers.
MacDougall adds that he doesn’t believe the proposed requirements on fee waivers would “lock students in prematurely” to an educational goal they must stick to. Students would be permitted to switch stated goals, but they would need to have one.
“This is such a fundamental level of planning,” says MacDougall. “It does not support a student who is there and says—“I’m recreational course taking.”
This is the second In a series of EdSource articles on key recommendations of the Student Success Task Force. Next: Student Success Courses.
The task force is holding several public meetings on its recommendations, and will meet again November 9th to consider finalizing the draft report. The Community Colleges Board of Governors may act on the recommendations in January 2012.