• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Friday Fragments

Tuition and family income, last dollar scholarships and more.


March 10, 2016

Although the data uses sticker prices, and refers only to public four-year colleges, Jeff Selingo’s chart showing tuition as a percentage of family income is striking. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

It’s largely a product of quiet, unpublicized disinvestment. Since most people don’t see the disinvestment, but do see the sticker price, they assume that it’s about a lack of budgetary discipline. That may contribute, in some cases, but it wouldn’t explain an entire sector.  

I’d expect to see publics -- both two-year and four-year -- start to get more discreet about price increases in the next few years. To the extent that people only notice the sticker price, it’s relatively easy to game that. Just do as the airlines do: keep the sticker price artificially low, but layer on top of it fees for every little thing.  I’m old enough to remember when “bag fees” would have been considered offensive; now they’re so expected that airlines that don’t charge them make a point of advertising the fact.  


Perhaps in reaction to the trend Selingo noted, the Community College of Philadelphia is establishing last-dollar scholarships for students with decent GPA’s to fill in the gap between available grants and the cost of tuition.

It’s easy to nitpick a program like that -- GPA’s often correlate to better high school preparation, living expenses are still uncovered, and so on -- but it strikes me as a great, if partial, move in the right direction.

People notice headline numbers. If the story that reaches low-income folks in Philadelphia is that they really can afford to attend college, and they shouldn’t work too many hours for pay for fear of losing the GPA that makes it affordable, then I foresee good things happening. A tip o’the cap to my neighbor to the South.


According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to students who don’t already have one has been dropping for the last several years.  But the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to students who do already have one has been climbing for the last several years.

Our growth demographic is college graduates.

It’s a fascinating finding.  I’d guess that it’s a function of several things. At a really basic level, colleges in regions with declining numbers of 18 year olds -- not naming any names -- have tried to cushion the blow by recruiting more adult students. With the for-profit sector having fallen on hard times of late, many adults who might once have gone to for-profits have turned instead to public colleges. And since the measure is completions, rather than enrollments, it’s capturing adults who returned when the recession was at its worst.

If I’m reading table 5 correctly, the shift has been more pronounced among women than among men. That fits with what I’ve seen at both Holyoke and Brookdale. In both places, the gender divide among 18 year old students is close to even, but among students over 23 it tilts heavily female.  Men are equally likely to attend right out of high school, but less likely to come back once they’ve been out. Some enterprising Ed.D. student could probably do something with that.  Hint, hint.

Still, the shift has been little noted in public, and it really calls into question the “13th grade” stereotype. And it suggests that folks doing, say, financial aid policy should be aware that the students we have may not be the students they’ve historically thought we’ve had.


Any wise and worldly readers who will be at the League for Innovation conference in Chicago next week and would like to meet up, drop me a line!


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