Part 2—Financial Aid: Crucial to Community College Student Success Nationwide
Driving the ABCs of student finance—improving accessibility, reducing student borrowing, and improving completion—at a community college requires innovation, challenging the status quo, and keeping the ever-changing needs of the nation’s 12 million students front-and-center. In Part 2 of this series, JoEllen Soucier, Executive Director of Financial Aid at Houston Community College, joins me to talk about her diverse student body and how her team is keeping students in school, on track, and in good financial health.
JoEllen, thanks for joining us during Community College Awareness Month. You’ve been in financial aid for more than 30 years, and we’re thrilled to be able to share your insights with the community.
JoEllen: Thanks, Amy. Great to join you. I have spent my entire career administering financial aid and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. Financial aid is a critical resource that provides access to higher education and, in turn, the American Dream. We change lives every day and I am so proud to be doing that.
Houston Community College has a very diverse student population. Can you describe it?
JoEllen: We are probably one of the most, if not the most, diverse community college in the country. We serve a variety of needs for students from a range of socioeconomic groups, cultures, and areas of the world. We also have one of the largest international student populations.
What type of demographic changes or trends have you seen over the past five or 10 years?
JoEllen: First of all, all community colleges are seeing somewhat of a decline in enrollment. The number of high school graduates is going down, so the pool of potential students is getting smaller. We also happen to be in a city with a low unemployment rate, meaning there’s opportunity for people to get jobs without pursuing higher education. That option is starting to decline, but it’s still there. Growth in this area has also slowed down a bit—we had a lot of people migrating here after Hurricane Katrina, but that has slowed.
Fewer of our students use financial aid than in the past, as well. We’re one of the lowest-cost community colleges in the country. Because our cost is low, people don’t see the need to apply for financial aid and pay out of pocket, instead. I come from New England, where 70% of students are on aid. Here, it’s 42%. We are giving out less aid than we were a few years ago, and that decline in borrowing is at a greater rate than our small decline in enrollment. People are finding ways to pay for college without taking out student loans, so they’re reducing how much they’ve borrowed.
Some of the decline in borrowing also has to do with the fact that we have a whole team of financial aid coaches who promote other ways to pay for college, without just quickly turning to student loans.
That’s definitely impressive—considering many Financial Aid Offices are struggling to get students to truly understand the real debt they are signing up for. How does your team do it?
JoEllen: I can’t speak more highly about them. They are six people who do a tremendous amount of work—for such a small team. Trained financial coaches, they help students reduce debt and increase assets and savings. They help students understand the dangers of “payday loans” and credit card debt. From workshops to seminars, they find ways to get out in front of our students and really connect.
Financial literacy is a huge focus for all institutions, not just community colleges. Are there ways you’re able to really leverage community resources?
JoEllen: Yes, our team works hard to help students tap into community resources. For example, they brought a tax-preparation service to campus. They’ve worked with food banks to bring food trucks to campus to help students who struggle with food insecurity. They help students apply for SNAP benefits. They’ve been invited to speak at conferences throughout the country, too, and have won national awards.
That’s amazing. What other impact has this team made—along with decreasing the number of students requiring aid?
JoEllen: When I got here, our default rate after three years was 22%. To me, that’s unacceptable. Through our coaches’ efforts, and a default management company we hired, we’ve brought that down to 11.9 percent.
Another thing: After Hurricane Harvey, our coaches identified 500 students that were in high need. It was a tremendous effort. They met students one-on-one to see what they needed. In the end, only 16 of the 500 students that received emergency money withdrew. That’s all due to their efforts.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a community college that is able to pivot so quickly to a unique situation like that.
JoEllen: I have an amazing team! They are all good, smart people who roll up their sleeves and work as hard, and as long, as needed. They work for the students. They truly care about people.
Obviously, you have a process that works. But why do you think loan default is such a big issue for community colleges?
JoEllen: It has to do with the students we serve. We service everybody and anyone. All ages, all walks of life. We have open enrollment. We don’t have—and don’t want—the luxury of picking and choosing who we enroll. We are here to help anyone who wants to get an education.
Some students aren’t ready, aren’t as prepared as they need to be. We work hard to get them ready for college; to help them be successful, long-term. Other students are in terrible financial disarray and we work very hard to get them out of that—but not everyone can find a way out. We also work with folks who have real-life challenges—and we give them a chance. But not everyone is able to take that chance. This is why community colleges have a lower graduation rate—and lower retention rate.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the need for more vocational training for students. Do you see that changing community colleges’ place in higher education?
JoEllen: Because we are open enrollment, some assume community college is poorer quality and less prestigious. That’s an old thought process. As we educate people about cost, debt-consciousness, and value-add, that perception is changing. With the type of faculty we have—and their knowledge and involvement in the education field—students are getting a high-quality education for a good price. Word about that is spreading, and it’s starting to change things.
What’s the biggest obstacle community college students will face over next five years?
JoEllen: I think it’s that a lot of students have no idea what they really want to do. They come to higher education knowing that they want an education and they test the waters. The problem with that is that financial aid programs are now limited, in the amount of Pell, unsubsidized loans, and subsidized loans. We need to work with students to help them find out a little quicker what they are good at, what their niche is, and what they like—so they aren’t wasting so much time and money figuring it out.
What do you love most about your job?
JoEllen: The amazing people walking through our doors every day. Whenever I can, I take the opportunity to go to our campuses and talk and work with students.
I just want to remind people to stop and smell the roses, to stop and appreciate the kinds of people we are attracting to community colleges. They are extremely diverse. We need people from all walks of life. Whether they started in a big huge mansion that their parents own, or a little apartment with a single mom making ends meet, each student is a sponge that is ready to learn.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, JoEllen. I hope I cross paths with your amazing team at a future conference!
In our next installment, Elizabeth Coria, Dean of Financial Aid and Student Success Programs at City College of San Francisco, joins me to talk about diversity, accessibility, and CCSF’s “Path to 32,000.”