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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 November 16 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Upward Bound

In Rhode Island, community college tuition will rise by 8.2 percent next year, or $276. Since 2004, tuition and fees have increased by 72 percent at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Starting in January, students at Mott Community College in Michigan will pay 4.3 percent more in tuition and fees. In Alabama, the cost per credit hour will jump from $71 to $85 starting next semester – an increase of nearly 20 percent.

Those pending tuition hikes and others around the country underscore a finding contained in a recent report issued by the College Board: Despite the recession, despite negative inflation, the upward climb of college tuition and fees continues unabated. It is a trend that has been in place for more than a decade.

 “Every sector of the American economy is under stress and higher education is no exception,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “It’s regrettable, and it’s yet another piece of disappointing economic news that affects families.”

The College Board report also found that the nation’s community colleges’ earned an unwanted distinction this year. Between 2008-09 and 2009-10, tuition and fees at public two-year colleges increased by 7.3 percent to $2,544 — greater than the rate of increase for any other sector of higher education. By comparison, tuition and fees at four-year publics rose 6.5 percent to $7,020; and four-year privates rose 4.4 percent to $26,273.

That’s a reversal in a decade-long trend. From 1999-2000 to 2009-10, average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges increased 1.8 percent per year after adjusting for inflation, compared to 4.9 percent at public four-year institutions and 2.6 percent at private, non-profit schools.

No Surprise

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said the survey results were no surprise.

“No sector is immune from the current economic downturn, and that includes our nation’s post-secondary institutions,” she said. “Every major revenue source for colleges and universities has been under stress.”

“Campuses struggle every day to balance their budgets. Public institutions are facing sharp declines in state support and taking aggressive cost-cutting measures to mitigate the impact of those losses.”

Said College Board President Gaston Caperton: “It is vital that we assure access to a high-quality college education for all students. While a college education is critical to long-term financial security, it feels out of reach to many students and families in today’s economy.

“States and institutions must increase their efforts to reduce costs and to prevent tuition from rising as rapidly as it has in the past. We must provide generous financial aid for those who most need the funds and help students and families to understand the wide array of options available to them in our diverse educational system.”

College leaders said they are increasing costs reluctantly. At the meeting where the decision to increase tuition and fees was made, Frank Caprio, chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, said it was “an extraordinarily uncomfortable decision.”

“Our stated goal is to make higher education affordable and accessible,” he said. “Every time we do this, we make it less affordable and less accessible. And we are disenfranchising many young people whose only chance out of poverty is education.”

Alabama Interim Chancellor Joan Davis said that the state’s tuition increase comes at a time when the system is experiencing record enrollment. Preliminary numbers for September show 92,329 students were enrolled in the system’s 25 community and technical college campuses.

“That record enrollment is straining already tight budgets and resources at our colleges,” she said. Tuition at the colleges had not been increased for five years.

Cost Cutting

The latest price increases came despite painful cost-cutting by colleges, including employee furloughs and reducing the number of classes being offered. Still, the rise in tuition outstripped the overall inflation rate. In the period covered by the report, consumer prices declined 2.1 percent. So the latest tuition increase at community colleges, in real terms, was closer to 10 percent.

A companion report released by the College Board also shows that financial aid from the federal government is surging and reliance on private loans is falling.

In 2008-09, 65 percent of the $180 billion spent on student aid came from the federal government in grants, loans and work-study programs, up from 58 percent the year before. Overall, the report estimated, federal grant aid rose almost 11 percent last year.

The reports were released as many colleges face their most challenging economic climate in generations. Even as enrollment grew, state appropriations to public colleges declined nearly $4 billion in 2008-09 from the previous year, the study found.

For community colleges, the tuition hikes threaten to undermine their mission of providing higher education to groups which find college out of reach — particularly the poor and minority groups.

In an interview with MSNBC, David Feldman, an economics professor at the College of William & Mary and co-author of a forthcoming book on the skyrocketing cost of higher education, said the rising costs take a toll on college access.

“While our research shows that a rise in the cost of higher education is not a problem on the whole, it is a problem in certain instances — namely in how it discourages poorer students from seeking a higher education,” he said. “Over the past 30 years, income in the U.S. has become increasingly polarized. More people are becoming very rich — and more very poor. The hollowing of the middle class is an even bigger affordability issue than (rising costs).”

Community colleges are also struggling with their expanded role in helping to revive the national economy. Across the country, colleges report crowded classrooms, dwindling course offerings and diminished public support.

Two-year colleges are at the center of economic revitalization efforts. President Barack Obama wants to invest some $12 billion in community colleges with the aim of seeing an additional 5 million students graduate by 2020. This goal comes as droves of displaced workers hit by the recession compete with traditional students seeking an affordable education.

Not All Are Ready

“All community colleges are not prepared to take on those potentially large numbers of students,” said Debra Bragg, a professor and director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois.

The Obama administration notes that 5 million more community college graduates doesn’t necessarily mean there will be that many more students — schools could increase graduation rates to reach the goal. But Bragg said the schools’ ability to deal with more students largely still comes down to cash.

Most of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges rely on financial support from local and state sources. That funding has diminished during the economic downturn. Obama’s initiative would provide a welcome infusion of cash, but some fear it would not sustain community college programs.

“They will be constrained by funding,” said Bragg. “It could be potentially extremely challenging if there’s not increased funding at the federal, state and local level to make that happen.”

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, is concerned colleges will find it difficult to meet new demands without yet more funding. Classes in popular fields such as nursing are expensive, requiring low student-to-faculty ratios and costly equipment.

“It’s great that people are coming back to community colleges to get trained, but a student only brings about a third of the cost of their tuition,” he said.

Feldman said the changes in federal government policy on financial aid are critical to improving access as tuition spirals upward.

“The government can improve access to higher education and reduce the price of it by increasing financial aid,” he said. “We realize that increased government spending is not a popular subject these days, but if legislators were to offer a universal, standard stipend — and make this the standard student financial aid package — this could gain broad support and improve access to higher education across society.”

Associated Press reports were included in this article.

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