About 36 percent of N.C. community college students lacked access to the federal direct student loans in 2013-14 — the fourth highest percentage in the nation, more than quadruple the national average of 8.5 percent, according to a report by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) last week.
Debbie Cochrane, one of the report’s co-authors, said the study’s findings are concerning because she thinks federal student loans are safe and affordable.
“When we see large groups of students not having access to them, that’s a concern for us because we want students to get the aid that they need to attend college,” she said.
But loans from the federal government must be repaid, sometimes even in cases of bankruptcy, said Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for Central Piedmont Community College, which opted out of the federal direct student loan program in March.
“We felt like for many of our students, it would be better if we could provide grants and scholarships rather than (have them) take out loans that they have to repay,” Lowrance said.
Of the 58 community colleges in the state, 39 have opted out as of July 2014.
“As the (state) legislation outlines, decisions to participate or opt out of the program are made at the local level,” said Megen Hoenk, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Community College system, in an email.
Starting in 2014, if over 30 percent of its students default on federal direct loans for three consecutive years, a participating college or university can lose eligibility for Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial aid.
An estimated 57 percent of students at Central Piedmont receive Pell Grants.
“We don’t want to do anything that will risk the way that 60 percent of our students are able to attend school,” Lowrance said.
Nationwide, 20.9 percent of community college students who started repaying federal loans in 2010 defaulted within three years, the TICAS study found.
And more than 53 percent of North Carolina’s college students attend a community college, according to the study.
“Our research has long found that community college students need more financial aid than they receive,” Cochrane said. “When you see a state that’s highly reliant on community colleges, and then low rates of loan access within a state, that’s particularly troubling.”
Lowrance said he hopes Central Piedmont can expand its scholarships.
“And of course, you don’t have to pay back that scholarship,” he said.
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