Closing the gaps: perceptions of financial aid needs in community colleges

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Murillo, Virginia

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In October 2000 the State of Texas commenced an ambitious fifteen-year master plan for higher education. The master plan, known as the Closing the Gaps by 2015 plan, includes a historic goal of increasing college enrollment by 500,000 students by the year 2015. During this period, Texas community colleges are projected to experience unprecedented enrollment growths; they are expected to enroll nearly 60 percent of all students in post-secondary education. This critical ethnographic study sought to unveil the perceptions of eight community college financial aid directors regarding the financial aid needs within the context of the Closing the Gaps plan. Moreover, this study is grounded within the theoretical framework of student attrition models. The data collected for this study was obtained through three major collection techniques: personal interviews, participant observations, and an analysis of pertinent documents. Analysis of the data revealed five major themes including: disconnect between financial aid policies and practices; illusory access for the highest- need students; futile awareness strategies and messages; unsuitable human resources for increasing demand; and inadequate technology resources. The study further unveiled multiple sub-themes for each major theme, which together formulate a clear perception among the participants that community colleges risk failing to serve the projected increase of low-income students, if improvements of the financial aid policies and practices do not materialize. Low-income students who are highly dependent on financial aid to enroll in post-secondary education comprise the largest population of the projected enrollment growths. The study concludes with a discussion of the implications of the data for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. The research concludes that absent changes to financial aid policies and practices affecting community colleges, the state will not meet its grand goal to increase post-secondary educatio n enrollment by 50 percent by 2015.