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2011 July 25 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: A Graduating Crisis

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Thousands of community college students donned caps and gowns and graduated this spring.  But a new report suggests that the escalating cost of attending community college is limiting access for students who most rely on the institutions.

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A Graduating Crisis
Report: Costlier Colleges Threaten Access
By Paul Bradley

It’s an article of faith for higher education policymakers across the country: while tuition at four-year colleges is increasing at a dizzying pace, community colleges offer an affordable alternative for millions of students.

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According to a new report, however, graduating from a community college — the only affordable avenue available for millions of underprivileged and minority students seeking a college education — is becoming out of reach for growing numbers of students as tuition increases continue to outpace the rise in family income.

Many states, meanwhile, are reducing higher education spending as they struggle to close yawning budget deficits, threatening community college access, especially for those students who traditionally have relied on the 2-year institutions, according to a report issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

“Many students are not able to keep pace with rising tuition, because family earnings have lost ground over the past decade,” the report said. “Median family income, adjusted for inflation, declined in the United States over the past decade. At the same time, tuition at two- and four-year colleges increased at a rate faster than inflation or family income, and student financial assistance did not keep pace, exacerbating the college affordability and college completion problems.”

“Concerns about college affordability have most likely been driving many students to community colleges. If current trends continue, more students will be priced out of higher education altogether,” the report said.

The report found that tuition rates at community colleges rose faster than family income in every state except Maine since 1999. In California, home of the nation’s largest community college system, the cost of attending community college increased 77 percent between 1999 and 2009, while median family income increased just 5 percent, the report said.

Patrick Callan, founder and executive director of the California-based center, said the report documents a trend that has been under way for 30 years. Over that time, the cost of college has increased even faster than the cost of health care, and much more than inflation or family income.

Galloping Increases

The economic downturn has only worsened the situation and undermines the country’s goal of producing more college graduates.

“This is just not a sustainable trend if your goal is to get more people into and through college,” Callan said. “These kinds of price increases when the economy is bad, and families are being squeezed anyway, tend to cause some people not to go to college at all.”

The report comes at a time when the White House, national foundations and states are pursuing ambitious initiatives to increase the number of Americans who earn associate and baccalaureate degrees and postsecondary certificates. These initiatives include better tracking of college completion rates and incentives for colleges to improve student success.

But these policies could fall short if they fail to improve the affordability of two- and four-year colleges and the transfer pathway from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities. These issues have a significant impact on student success but policymakers have often found them difficult to address, the report said.

“Because so many students who seek a bachelor’s degree begin at community colleges, initiatives to improve baccalaureate completion should incorporate policies and practices that explicitly address college affordability and transfer,” the report said. “Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned policies will be very limited in their effectiveness if they fail to address these critical issues that reflect the real-life circumstances and constraints confronting students seeking, often struggling, to earn bachelor’s degrees.”

“Community colleges are more crucial than ever, but state financial aid and transfer policies that enable students to move from two-year colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions are not keeping pace with the need.”

A second, separate report documents that the average net cost of a community college education is $6,780 a year, though many colleges cost much more. Florida Keys Community College, for example, has an average annual net cost of $23,515 a year, more than any other public two-year college in the country. Great Bay Community College, in New Hampshire, ranks second with an average annual net cost of $17,980.

Net cost is defined as cost of attendance, minus scholarship and grant aid. The Education Department says those “sticker prices” better reflect out-of-pocket attendance costs than do tuition costs.

The numbers come from the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Affordability and Transparency Center, a new website (collegecost.ed.gov.catc) that fulfills a requirement passed into law in 2008. The website tracks tuition costs among the top and bottom 5 percent of four-year and two-year schools. The measures include public, private and for-profit colleges and universities, and represent the first time the federal government has ranked colleges by affordability.

The center also tracks the rate of tuition increases, as well as the rate of increase in the average net price. Career college users interested in a specific track can search by their area of interest, such as cosmetology or automotive repair.

Tracking Costs

“Given the energy and commitment that families make to the process ... this information is very useful,” said David Bergeron, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, planning and innovation.

The new reporting standard requires schools with the highest costs or largest increases to explain them and develop plans to mitigate the increases. The specific reporting requirements are still being developed, officials said.

Education officials also acknowledge the data’s limitations. For instance, the cost of attendance of some costly colleges include fees that peer institutions calculate separately. And while the new lists highlight schools at the very top and bottom, they don’t account for the other 90 percent of institutions.

“This is really a tool that allows students and families to see the highs and lows,” Bergeron said. “You really don’t see the large middle.”

The new ED data shows that South Texas College is the most affordable college in the country among schools with an enrollment of more than 5,000. Though founded as a community college and defined in most quarters as such, South Texas College appears as a four-year college in the ranking because it offers several four-year degrees in applied sciences. The ranking system said the net price of attending STC is $1,317. That’s compared to a national average of $10,747.

STC quickly sent out a news release trumpeting its top ranking.

“This is a very proud day for not only our institution, but the entire Rio Grande Valley and pioneering community colleges like ours that have focused on providing quality bachelor’s degrees, always with the idea in mind of giving our students an affordable pathway to create a better life for them and their families,” said William Serrata, STC vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

“We serve primarily first-generation college students from two of the poorest counties in the nation, thus we are committed to keeping costs affordable so we can continue giving students a path to upward social and economic mobility,” added Serrata. “That’s why we offer applied bachelor’s degrees, dual enrollment for more than 9,000 high school students and have maintained five state-of-the-art campuses, as well as an online virtual campus. We are about open access and accessibility. We closely account for every penny we spend, ensuring we are getting the most bang for our institution’s buck in order to facilitate student success. That translates into more opportunities and lower costs.”

Associated Press reports are included in this story.

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