Americans often think of college students as young people who depend on their parents. But in reality, today’s students usually work, have families and struggle to make ends meet. In fact, the majority of post-secondary education students are enrolled in community colleges. They need college to fit into their lives — not the other way around.

Community colleges play an important role for students and communities. They provide educational services, prepare students for in-demand local jobs and employ people in the area. 

But community colleges are particularly important resources for low-income students. Fifty-eight percent of community college students have low-income backgrounds, compared with 42 percent of students at private four-year colleges. Additionally, more than 70 percent of black and Native American community college students earn low incomes, as do two-thirds of Latinx ones.

Today’s students usually work, have families and struggle to make ends meet.

For many of these students, the greatest barrier to long-term success is a lack of support — academic, financial, physical and emotional — to help them enroll in, and complete, college. For decades, community colleges have been underfunded ­— that makes it difficult to address student needs like child care, food, housing and employment. As a result, students struggle to cover basic necessities, and they often drop out of school, risk taking on major debt or both.

The federal government must increase its investments in programs and institutions that help low-income students and students of color succeed. That includes investing in minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which represent close to one-quarter of all community colleges, as well as permanently increasing the Pell Grant and providing more grant aid. It’s also critical to connect students to public benefits and other non-financial support services. And the federal government should devise free community college programs that are flexible enough to include populations that would benefit most. These investments are vital to ensuring equitable access and positive outcomes for all students.