Free Community College? How About Some Help with Subway Fare Too?

Students sit in lounge at Guttman Community College

Students at Guttman Community College sit in the lounge that faces Bryant Park on West 40th Street. (Jaclyn Peiser/NYCity Lens)

Penelope Aarons rushed out the glass doors of Guttman Community College in a hurry one February afternoon. She wanted to make sure she had enough time to grab lunch before her next class. Aarons, 18, is originally from the Dominican Republic, but currently lives in the Bronx with her family. Her goal: to work hard, get good grades and transfer to a four-year college.

Guttman Community College, located on West 40th Street in Manhattan near Bryant Park, is a place where almost 700 students many from low income families, work hard for a higher education.

“We want to succeed. This is our plan,” says Aarons. “Even though this is only our beginning, we have big dreams and we want to go to big universities too. We’re working hard here to get a good GPA and then move to a better college.”

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama made an unprecedented proposal –– receiving an associates degree should be as attainable for young Americans as receiving a high school diploma. A few weeks later, the president in his proposed budget said he planned to make community college completely free. CUNY students would benefit if the president’s plan moves ahead, at least in theory. But even free tuition might not ease the burden entirely for low-income students like Aarons.

“I think it’s a fantastic move to think of universal graduation from community colleges the way we used to think of having everybody graduate from high school,” CUNY Guttman Community College President Scott Evenbeck said. “It really moves the country in a very positive direction.”

But while the plan will be especially helpful for lower income students, said Evenbeck, it surprisingly might not make much of a difference for many CUNY students. The reason? Most students at CUNY, which has seven community colleges throughout New York City, already get substanital financial support from the country and state.

CUNY’s tuition is $4,500 per year for residents of New York. The majority of students at community college in New York City come from low income homes, according to the university’s website. About 75 percent of students in the fall 2014 at Guttman received need-based financial aid, in the form of  federal Pell Grants and as part of the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, known as TAP, a grant from the state that is given to residents from low-income homes to help pay for tuition to New York colleges and universities. Students can receive anywhere from $500 to about $5,000 from TAP. It is not yet clear how these programs will be affected if the president’s plan goes through.

“Because CUNY’s tuition is relatively low, and because the students are so predominately on Pell grants and TAP, [the president’s initiative] would make only some difference for the students,”Evenbeck said. “I’m certainly in favor of the proposal. But I think for our student body, the greater need is for other kids of financial support.” Specifically,  Evenbeck said Guttman students could use financial assistance to cover transportation costs. About 79 percent of students enrolled at Guttman are from the other four boroughs.

“Students, when they go through K-12, they have MetroCards to get to school,” Evenbeck said. “Then, when they come to community college, all of a sudden they don’t have that support.”

Xavier Penanendez, 20, a first year student at Guttman who lives in Brooklyn, said his tuition is covered by financial aid but he often struggles to pay for transportation to school. “It does get costly buying MetroCards each month,” Penanendez said. An unlimited monthly MetroCard costs $112.

Some students say they can’t afford the cost of textbooks either.  First year student Vanessa Polanco said she receives financial aid to pay for tuition, but often can’t cough up the cash to buy her textbooks. “We still have to pay for our textbooks and textbooks don’t come cheap,” The 20-year-old Bronx resident said. “So the tuition might be free but the supplies we need for class? No.”

A free community college education would definitely take the pressure off some students, since most financial aid, including TAP, requires students to maintain a certain GPA in order to keep the financial aid. Vanessa Aarons, first year student, said this often causes added stress for students who can’t afford to lose the financial support.

“You’re not always going to get A’s and B’s,” Aarons, who has a 3.3 GPA, said. “You might get a D once and your grade will go down and they will take away your financial aid.”

She feels the pressure to not let one class slip through the cracks. “I have a biology class right now and it’s really complicated,” she said. She’s scared if she gets a low grade she’ll lose her financial aid and she will have to pay for college with her own money. Money, she says, she doesn’t have.