Costlier Community Colleges

Rising tuitions (and inadequate transfer policies) are putting even two-year institutions out of reach for many Americans, report asserts.

June 30, 2011

Amid the seemingly ever-present complaints from politicians and others about how fast tuitions are rising, it's not uncommon for higher education officials to cite community colleges as the exception. But that's getting harder and harder to do, especially given the relatively slow progress state officials are making in helping students transfer from two-year to four-year institutions, a new report asserts.

The report, from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, focuses on community colleges, which the center's officials see as a crucial part of the federal government's plans to increase the number of college graduates in the next decade. According to the report, there are nine states in which more than half of all undergraduate students are at community colleges. Four of those states -- Texas, California, Illinois, and Arizona -- also appear on the list of the 10 states projected to have the most high school graduates over the next decade.

“The way we’re going to increase completion of baccalaureate degrees, in the biggest and fastest-growing states, is by improving the number of students who start in community colleges and transfer,” said Patrick Callan, the center's director.

That will be increasingly unlikely, though, said Callan, if tuition at public two-year institutions continues to rise sharply as it has since since 1999, far outpacing the rise in median family income in every state except Maine, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics cited in the report. The gap was most dramatic in South Carolina, where median family income fell by about 5 percent over that time, while tuition rose more than 100 percent. Median family income saw only modest gains in California and Virginia, while tuition increases hovered around 80 percent.

The numbers show that states need to rethink their approach to funding and tuition at public two-year institutions, Callan said. “No state has an effective tuition policy,” he said. “Most of them are doing it exactly the wrong way.”

Turning it around would mean adopting policies that tie tuition increases to median family income, rewarding colleges that balance their budgets without increasing the cost of attendance, and allowing steady tuition growth during good economic years, he said.

The report also praises efforts in some states to make the transition from two- to four-year institutions easier, including adopting common course numbers and an agreed-upon core curriculum. These measures could save students money by preventing them from having to retake courses after they’ve transferred.

Nationwide, only 12 percent of students who begin at community colleges end up graduating from a four-year institution, while 21 percent of them graduate with an associate degree. The numbers differ from state to state, although the gap between the percentage of students with associate degrees and bachelor's degrees doesn't seem any smaller in states with comprehensive transfer policies.

But Callan says rising cost of attendance is the most important issue moving forward.

“Most of these aren’t going to be very effective unless we deal with this affordability issue,” he said.


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