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Unaffordable community colleges

Community colleges are supposed to be “an inexpensive on-ramp to a bachelor’s degree,” but tuition hikes are pricing out low-income students, concludes Affordability and Transfer: Critical to Increasing Baccalaureate Degree Completions by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Tuition at public two-year colleges—traditionally the only affordable option for first-generation, low-income, and traditionally underserved college students—has increased much more rapidly than inflation over the past 20 years. At the same time, nationwide median family income, when adjusted for inflation, has actually declined over the last decade.

States haven’t increased aid enough to keep college affordable, the report finds. Needy students are working more hours and taking fewer classes, making it less likely they’ll ever complete any kind of degree.

President Obama’s higher education goals depend on keeping entry-level college affordable.

“It’s time for state policymakers to focus on affordability,” NCPPHE President Patrick M. Callan said. “If we want better graduation rates, we’ve got to make sure our tuition and financial aid policies measure up.”

The report projects increases in high school graduates in states such as California, Arizona and Texas, where a majority of college students enroll in community colleges.  That will put more pressure on the two-year system.

On the positive side, the report praises several states for making it easier for transfer students to complete a four-year degree.

  • Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington state now offer transfer associate’s degrees, a package of courses whose credits are fully accepted toward four-year institutions’ general-education requirements.
  • California is creating a transfer degree program that guarantees junior status to those transferring to the state university system.
  • City University of New York’s board has voted to simplify transfers and standardize core curricula across the 23-campus system, despite faculty opposition.

    The NCPPHE report’s recommendations to states include:

  • Stabilize rates of tuition increases, taking family income in each state into account, and increase need-based financial aid.
  • Ensure that tuition and student financial aid policies do not discourage full-time attendance at two- and four-year colleges.
  • Make financial aid available for transfer students so they can attend full time, and for part-time students so they can keep making progress toward a degree while they work to support their families.
  • Hispanic students are especially dependent on access to community colleges. Nationwide, 50 percent of Hispanic students, 31 percent of blacks and 28 percent of whites start at community colleges.

    Graduation rates for community college students vary enormously from state to state, the report finds. In Nevada, only 20 percent of students who start at a community college complete a two-year or four-year degree. The completion rate is 74 percent in North Dakota and 65 percent in Vermont. Nationwide, 33 percent complete a degree.