Of the 27 students who originally enrolled in my course, I have 16 in class today. As I hand back the first test of the semester, I remark that maybe a lot of people have spring fever on this sunny day. One of my students suggests a different reason for the high number of absences, saying, “Well, refund checks were sent this week. By next week, there won’t be any problem finding parking on campus.”
Sigh. I’ve long bristled against the stereotype that “a lot of people are just here for their refund checks.” I’m referring to the students’ financial aid from the state and federal governments. That money is sent directly to an institution, which takes the portion required to pay a student’s tuition and fees, then writes a check to the student for the remainder. Students can then use the financial aid for living expenses.
In my experience, students stop coming to classes for all sorts of reasons, including child-care issues, medical problems, and work demands.
But whatever their reasons, some community-college students do vanish at this time of the semester. And while that financial-aid check may ameliorate a short-term economic problem, the long-term consequences of their disappearance from the classroom are much farther reaching. Those absences will turn into grades of “F” and “W” on their transcripts, which will eventually lead to loss of financial-aid eligibility. That will make coming back to college difficult and may also mean an inability to pay off student loans, which, in turn, leads to default, poor credit ratings, and, still, no degree.
While students no doubt have personal responsibility for their own enrollment, we must also examine how our systems contribute to this lack of retention. For one, community colleges have long had the practice of allowing students to register through the first week of classes. Some institutions are even ending late registration, realizing that half of their late enrollees either failed or withdrew.
Late enrollees are less likely to have financial aid in place when they begin classes, which often means they have no money for books or supplies. Add to that their missing up to a full week of classes, and they simply don’t have the basic tools needed to do well academically. When the refund check does come in, several weeks later, it may be too late to salvage their grades for that semester.
Of course, the community-college mission of access is the reason for the late-enrollment practice. But access means more than simply getting inside the doors. If they’re not staying with us, then that access, just like that refund check, amounts to little more than a glint of hope turned into a false promise.