Pell grant-eligible students can go to community college for free next year

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 07-13-2023 10:12 AM

When Anthony Poore thinks about ways to retain young people, especially people of color in New Hampshire, he knows no single solution exists. But as he breaks it down into smaller pieces, he considers the lived experiences of his two daughters.

His daughters represent one of the smallest racial minority groups in the state – Poore is Black and their mom is Colombian. His eldest daughter decided to stay in New Hampshire, earning a degree from Southern New Hampshire University and working towards a Masters in Business Administration. The youngest, left for college in Rhode Island.

Often, it’s factors of affordability, accessibility and opportunity that lead students to attend college in New Hampshire and remain here after graduation. Can students earn enough to afford tuition and pay off debt when they graduate? Do they have a place to live while attending school?

Thinking about these solutions requires putting together pieces of a larger puzzle, said Poore, who is the president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity. And with new funding for the 2023-24 school year through the new Promise Program, New Hampshire’s seven community colleges will make a step towards connecting those pieces.

Next year, eligible students can attend a school in the Community College System of New Hampshire free of charge. When thinking about the low to moderate-income students that this program will apply to, often it’s intersectional with students of color, said Poore.

At community colleges across the state, like Manchester Community College where the Promise Program was announced, 23 percent of students identify as people of color.

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These demographics not only outpace the state’s overall makeup, which is 89 percent white, but also the flagship public four-year college, the University of New Hampshire, where only 10 percent of the student body is of color.

Thanks to $3 million in funding from the governor’s biennial budget, the Promise Program will cover any funding gaps from grants for students who are Pell-grant eligible and have filled out a Free Application for Student Federal Aid.

“It’s a game changer,” said Poore.

But that comes with some caution, he said, as it’s a short-term solution to a much larger problem in the state.

New Hampshire ranks among the highest in cost for in-state tuition. A degree from UNH’s main campus in Durham has a price tag of $35,000 a year, when tuition, fees and housing are considered.

At the same time, New Hampshire ranks among the lowest in state investment in higher education. “If our budgets are a representation of our moral compass, and if in fact they are, then where you put your money matters,” he said.

The funding will support the program for the upcoming school year, according to Mark Rubinstein, the community college system chancellor. He expects it to help 1,000 to 1,500 of the system’s 20,000 students.

But it’s hard to put a number on the average amount of aid for each student, he said. Some, need a couple of hundred dollars to fill their funding gaps. For others, it’s more. Factors like expected family contribution will differ among students as well.

There is no additional application or paperwork needed, either. Students who are Pell-grant eligible and have completed a FAFSA will automatically be considered.

In part, this program is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the legislature that this program has an impact, said Rubinstein. If it is successful, it could lead to further conversations about continued funding.

The announcement comes on the heels of a federal Supreme Court ruling that canceled President Joe Biden’s plan to relieve student debt. In New Hampshire, over 200,000 students could have seen forgiveness.

For an aging state that has seen a migration of young people out of New Hampshire, the hope is that this investment in students will encourage them to stay after graduation.

“If we want to have a highly qualified workforce that’s ready to participate in the 21st-century-information-based economy, we have to invest in young people,” said Poore.

Poore himself is the son of a community college student. And his own story provides emphasis on the benefit of supporting access to education, he said.

“We have to invest in young people. We have to invest, to make sure that people who have nominal means like myself, whose mother went to eighth grade and never finished her GED, can go out there and get it,” he said.

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