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Faculty members and students at Connecticut community colleges are concerned about a recent vote by the state Board of Regents to raise tuition at the institutions by 5 percent. They are particularly dismayed about the timing of the decision, which comes as many students are still recovering—or still suffering—from the financial fallout of the pandemic.
Tuition for students taking 12 credits or more will rise from $4,476 to $4,700 per year, a relatively modest increase. But critics of the bump say many students cannot afford to pay higher tuition and stopped taking classes last year and this year because of competing financial needs. System officials say the hike is an unfortunate but necessary step as the institutions face an estimated $60 million shortfall. What’s more, the state’s community colleges lost a third of their students over the past decade, with the most staggering year-to-year enrollment losses occurring during the pandemic.
“Nobody ever wants to raise tuition,” said Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. “I’d rather give it away for free, frankly.”
He estimates the tuition increase could raise up to $4 million, which “is helpful, but it’s not going to be enough to solve our problems.” The enrollment declines have been a driving factor behind a controversial merger of the 12 community colleges planned for summer 2023.
Similar decisions to raise tuition are being made at community colleges across the country ahead of the 2022–23 academic year. Some college leaders describe the increases as a defensive move to stave off future financial problems prompted by steep enrollment declines, budget shortfalls and rising inflation. Some community college administrators say modest annual tuition hikes are a return to normal after a series of uncharacteristic tuition freezes instituted in response to the pandemic.
Some rankled faculty and staff members and students argue that the economic downturn and job losses caused by pandemic make even small tuition hikes burdensome.
Anna Torres, director of financial aid at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, called the tuition increase “reprehensible” in a letter addressed to the state Board of Regents in February.
She noted that community colleges serve “the largest populations of black and brown students, the largest populations of students from working-class families” and “the students that can least likely afford a tuition increase during the economic crisis that we are living through.”
Jamie Czikowsky, a student at Tunxis Community College, told the board at a February meeting that students will have to choose between “paying for their education or putting food on the table, paying for childcare, or other basic needs that the extra $224 had provided them.”
“Per my conversations with students, these hikes will directly result in more enrollment decline,” she added.
Some community college leaders are making efforts to explain to students why tuition increases are needed and seeking to engage them in discussions about it.
Andrew Bowne, president of Johnson County Community College in Kansas, said administrators made a presentation to the college’s Student Senate explaining the rationale for an increase of $3 per credit hour for students in the district, $4 for out-of-district students and $5 for out-of-state and international students in the fall. The college hasn’t increased tuition since 2017.
“If you were to say, ‘Hey, students, do you want a tuition increase?’ most students are not going to say, ‘Golly, I’d love one,’” Bowne said. But the Senate chose not to oppose the measure, and he believes it’s because they understood that college leaders are contending with dwindling tuition revenues and growing costs.
Liz Clark, vice president of policy and research at National Association of College and University Business Officers, noted that community colleges largely rely on a mixture of tuition revenue, state appropriations and local or municipal funds. While many states currently have healthy budget surpluses, some of their funding formulas for higher education allocate state dollars partly based on enrollment—a challenge for community colleges experiencing enrollment declines, she said. Meanwhile, federal COVID-19 relief funds that were a major help to many colleges are running out.
Clark also pointed out that “students who attend community colleges are often high-needs students,” who require more support services, and “that makes the cost of delivering higher education more expensive.”
Barnes said CSCU has taken measures to make the tuition rise more affordable to students “most harmed by the increase.” For example, the system usually sets aside 15 percent of revenue for institutional financial aid; it has upped that amount to 17 percent for the next academic year, making available an additional approximately $1.5 million to low-income students. He also noted that because of the state’s free community college program, the federal Pell Grant and state scholarships, more than 70 percent of students pay no tuition and fees and will not be affected by the increase.
“We’re committed to affordability,” he said. “We hope we’re able to address any subset of students whose access may be harmed by this change in tuition.”
James Sawyer, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, said small annual tuition increases are normal and not necessarily a sign that colleges are struggling. His institution plans to raise tuition by 2 percent in fall 2022, which he described as “pretty typical.” He noted that tuition makes up about 38 percent of the college’s revenue and costs tend to go up somewhat year to year.
“For us, it’s a decision we make each year,” he said. “I think most colleges raise tuition most years. I would say when colleges don’t raise tuition, that’s more unusual.” The tuition freezes in response to the pandemic “were more of an anomaly.”
A report from the College Board last year found that higher education institutions on average had “historically low” tuition increases in the 2021–22 academic year before adjusting for inflation: a 1.3 percent increase on average for in-district students at community colleges and 1.6 percent for in-state four-year public students. The increases were lower than the inflation rate in the first eight months of 2021, which means average tuition and fees declined compared to the previous academic year after adjusting for inflation.
Bowne, the community college president in Kansas, noted that during the pandemic, his college was able to be more frugal in certain ways—travel costs, for example, were down—but those expenses and others are ramping up again as public health protocols grow more lax. Inflation has also “kicked into full gear,” making technology and other costs of running a college more expensive.
Evelyn Jorgenson, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College, agreed that two-year institutions like hers have been hit hard by rising inflation. The college had not raised tuition since 2013, but tuition for in-district students will go up 5.3 percent, from $75 to $79 per credit hour, in the fall. Tuition for out-of-district students will increase from $135 to $145, out-of-state tuition will rise from $150 to $164 and international student tuition will increase from $195 to $215 per credit.
Jorgenson said the costs of software, computers, furniture, books for the library, ingredients for the culinary school and other essentials have all gone up because of a mix of inflation and supply-chain problems.
She also noted that the college needs more funding to put toward faculty and staff member salaries. The emotional toll of the pandemic prompted a series of early retirements, and workforce shortages caused by the pandemic have driven employers to raise wages and made it harder for the college to hold on to employees lured by higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
Jorgenson said she felt like she had no choice but to raise tuition, and she believes other colleges instituting tuition increases are in the same position.
“The only way for us to continue to afford to purchase those things to run the college and to provide for a quality education for students … is to raise tuition and fees,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a trend, per se. It’s a reaction to the reality that we live in. Inflation is taking its toll.”
Barnes, of CSCU, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more community colleges raise tuition ahead of the fall.
System officials held tuition steady earlier in the pandemic because they felt an increase would “add insult to injury” for students already struggling to stay enrolled, he said. But in this new phase of the public health crisis—and in the absence of more COVID-19–related federal relief funds—Connecticut community colleges need “a balanced budget going forward, or we won’t continue to operate for very long.”