Many Philadelphia Community College students are finding relief as they check their college accounts this week.
The Community College of Philadelphia is paying off any outstanding tuition debt for about 3,500 students. Any student who was enrolled at the college between March 13, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, until the end of last semester is eligible for the extra financial aid.
CCP is using $2.75 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) through the CARES Act specifically for student tuition balances and books. The school also has a second pot of money through HEERF, which students have to apply for, that can be used for tuition, housing, child care, food, and health care.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the nation saw a dramatic decline in community college enrollment. Enrollment at CCP is currently down by 23%. The college hopes the funds will encourage students to re-enroll.
College students across the country experienced higher food and housing insecurity in 2020, according to a survey conducted by The Hope Center for College Community and Justice at Temple University. In Philadelphia, 1 in 2 college students had trouble affording basic necessities.
This year “was like hitting a cliff,” said Donald “Guy” Generals, president of the Community College of Philadelphia.
“Students had to drop out, they lost their jobs, they had family issues, they couldn’t continue. And then moving everyone online … many students did not sign up for online coursework,” said Generals.
When CCP went virtual, many students found it difficult to stay tuned in. The college serves 72% students of color, who were the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to the Hope Center survey, Black students were 19% more likely than white students to experience insecurity in terms of basic needs.
“Many of our students’ home environments are not conducive towards a private setting where they can study or have a conversation with their counselor,” said Generals. “Many had kids at home, they had crowded situations, many of them got laid off, many of their parents got laid off.”
So the college sees HEERF as a major benefit to help students with debt.
“Their tuition is part of our revenue streams. If they are not enrolled, there’s no tuition. We have to work towards having a fairly robust enrollment,” said Generals.
Gashira Mills, 33, from Southwest Philadelphia, happened upon her zero account balance a few days ago. It was a big shock. She laughed as she described seeing her debt disappear.
“I did not hear about the funds. I looked in my account and it was gone. I had to double-check and make sure it wasn’t an accident. I was planning on paying them,” said Mills. “I was greatly appreciative of it. It helped me a lot.”
Mills exhausted her financial aid at Cheyney University in 2017 and then decided to attend CCP as a “guest student,” so she could still afford classes and transfer her credits over to Cheyney. She takes one class at a time now, because she’s paying out of pocket.
She works as a patient care technician at the Pennsylvania Hospital to pay the bills, and says she doesn’t qualify for financial aid.
When the pandemic first hit, Mills’ hours were cut at Springfield Hospital and she was moved to a different hospital. Springfield closed all but its emergency room in April 2020. On top of it all, Mills’ father passed away this year.
“That was stressful, trying to figure out where I was going to get funds from,” said Mills. “Life hit during the pandemic, but I survived.”
Mills wasn’t aware of the opportunity to apply for extra financial support through CCP’s HEERF III grant, but she hopes she can take advantage of the opportunity.
She’s planning to finish both her business degree at Cheyney and her nursing degree at Delaware County Community College.
CCP is working on spreading awareness about both financial aid opportunities through their financial aid counselors and their Single Stop services.
“Counselors and advisors are in touch with students … I think we have a good handle on the depth of the struggles that our students are going through,” said CCP President Generals.
Anecdotally, Generals is already seeing an increase in enrollment after just a week of the emergency funds rolling out. He doesn’t have the exact numbers yet, but he’s optimistic.
“We know that [students] are responding to this,” said Generals.
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