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The concept of “high tuition/high aid” as a policy for public higher education is frequently discussed as an option for four-year colleges, and especially for flagships. The theory goes that students are better off at universities that charge more so that they have more educational resources -- and that the potential for lost access for low-income students can be prevented through generous student aid programs.

A session at this week’s annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, in Philadelphia, suggested that the high tuition/high aid model is taking hold for community colleges, as well -- and that caused some discomfort in the audience.

Christopher Mullin, a fellow in the College of Education at the University of Florida, presented data showing a historic shift in community college tuition policies, and an analysis of some of the recent developments. In the 1930s and 1940s and through the early 1950s, community college tuition was hardly different from the tuition of four-year public colleges and universities -- and all of the rates were quite low. It was only in the '60s that the gaps started to grow, with four-year institutions becoming roughly double the cost of community colleges by 1980 and approaching three times the cost of community colleges early in this decade.

At the same time, however, the days in which some community colleges boasted of being free and others were for all purposes free are gone. The average is $2,361 this academic year, according to the College Board.

Mullin noted that efforts to move back to free or no tuition haven’t been successful -- and given the tight budgets in many states, that seems unlikely to change. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, has proposed -- thus far without success -- that Massachusetts make community colleges free. And he noted that Virginia has added student aid programs for community college graduates who transfer to four-year institutions, based on the idea that with aid they should be able to afford a higher education. But some of that aid is conditioned on students maintaining certain grades in college and/or enrolling in certain fields.

When Mullin asked audience members -- mostly community college officials, but with some trustees as well -- about their views on these developments, many noted reasons for low tuition policies that appear to be eroding.

“In a visible way, the state is declaring the value of higher education and it’s saying it wants to invest in its citizenry. For me, the issue isn’t the free [cost], but that message of support,” said one educator. He noted that state leaders across the country have endorsed the idea that scholarships are appropriate to encourage top students to enroll at flagship universities, in many cases supporting these programs even though they provide aid to some students who are relatively wealthy.

But several others there -- in particular trustees -- said that they didn't think tuition should be viewed as a bad thing for community colleges. One said that students who pay something of substance are more serious about their studies. Another said that "nothing's really free," noting that reducing or eliminating tuition would result in increased costs to the state.

These comments prompted a college official present to compare the attitudes being expressed about community college students with those expressed about top students. "Isn't it in society's interests to educate everybody?" he asked. "Or to educate the highly motivated or the wise and intelligent? I think it’s in society’s interest to educate everyone."

Similarly, another audience member said that community colleges -- as open access institutions -- should resist aid programs that link grants to superior academic achievement. When states do that, this educator said, they undercut the value of the associate degree -- which is offered to students of a range of academic abilities. "You want the degree to have validity, and this narrows down the degree. It only affirms the high achievers," he said.

But a trustee in the audience shot back: "If you are the slightest bit motivated, you can get a 3.0,” referring to a common grade requirement for scholarships. And if failing to meet that requirement means some students can't go on after community college, she said that was fine. "Not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree. We need good auto mechanics and carpenters," she said.

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