My son was going back to college following a couple of years off from school to work. After applying and being approved for federal student loans, he’d come up with a good plan to put some of the loan money toward a used vehicle he’d need for transportation.
But when he went to enroll in classes, he was told he couldn’t unless he had cash. The problem? Gaston College isn’t participating in federal student loan programs. With the enrollment deadline already passed at other regional schools that do take student loans, it was too late for him to enroll this fall.
Deciding whether to enroll at one of these other areas schools in January will be up to him. The drive to Hickory or Huntersville is a lot further than the drive to the Lincolnton campus or Dallas would have been.
He was understandably irritated with the system and so was I.
When a young man who answered the phone at Gaston College confirmed that the school did not participate in federal loan programs, I asked to speak with his boss. “You can talk to my manager but that’s not going to change whether we participate,” he told me. I didn’t much care for that answer.
Talking with other college officials in both Dallas and Raleigh, however, I gained a better appreciation for the complex political situation that had led to this point.
The rules allowing community colleges to opt out of federal student loan programs have gone back and forth in recent years. Before 2010, only about 20 of the 58 community colleges worked with the federal loan programs. Then legislators passed a law forcing all colleges to participate. But Gaston College was one of more than two-dozen schools that received permission to opt out anyway through special local bills. Legislators used a veto override in June to reverse the 2010 mandate altogether.
Although the majority of schools do participate in the loan programs, quite a few have opted out.
Why would college officials decide its students shouldn’t be eligible for federal assistance of any kind? Researching this question, several concerns are clear:
Participation in the programs can require significant staffing, paperwork and responsibility.
Other forms of aid, such as federal Pell Grants, are sometimes enough to cover tuition costs at 2-year colleges, though not all students who actually need help qualify on paper.
Some colleges are also concerned that too many loan defaults by their alumni could result in their loss of access to all federal programs, including Pell Grants.
Many former students have been unable to repay their loans, especially if they’ve borrowed the full amount the federal government allows. That’s especially true for those who are attending training programs in areas like cosmetology, which are respectable but not high-paying professions. However, federal rules say that if your college participates in the loan programs, you can’t prevent one student from borrowing more than another.
In the General Assembly, the issue became highly partisan with Republicans calling for local control over community colleges and Democrats supporting full participation in the federal aid programs.
While I often side with the Republicans, I think they misapplied their principles in this case. For starters, a look at which colleges around the state opted out shows that many are in areas where Democrats are usually calling the shots. Regardless of party affiliation, local government control – especially by unelected boards — is not local citizen control.
More to the point, the correct conservative principle is freedom from the dictates of the nanny state.
If the federal government wants to loan (not give) citizens money for school-related expenses, those citizens and their families should be free to make a choice to knowingly incur the responsibilities involved while attending any taxpayer-funded school and shouldn’t need protection from local community college decision-makers.
That being said, federal law-makers should take a serious look at the program and consider implementing additional loan tiers, so that loan amounts are more proportional to the expected earning-power of the students upon graduation.
In the meantime, however, college students are not little children who need to be prevented from making their own decisions. State legislators should revisit this issue and stop making the path to education unnecessarily more difficult for some, simply because they live in an area with shortsighted officials on the local community college board. For its part, Gaston College’s board should reassess the situation and let student take full advantage of federal loan programs.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News.