Low tuition isn’t always a bargain for community college students, argues Nate Johnson in an Inside Higher Ed commentary that defends Santa Monica College‘s abandoned two-tier pricing plan. If low-cost community colleges don’t have the revenue to offer enough classes, students will turn to high-cost for-profit colleges, which expand quickly to meet demand.

From  2001-2 to 2009-10, the proportion of Pell grant recipients attending for-profit colleges rose from 15 to 25 percent, while declining from 35 percent to 32 percent at community colleges. Given the much higher prices at for profit institutions, this has meant a huge — but hidden — tuition increase for low-income students.

After earning a bachelor’s degree and working as a pilot, Joe was downsized. He considered nursing programs at Florida State, Florida A&M, and Tallahassee Community College (TCC), but all had long wait lists. Instead of waiting a year and a half to start at TCC, Joe turned to a private career college, Keiser University, which let him start in three months.

The shorter wait, he figured, would make up for the cost, which Joe pegged at about three times that of TCC.

Joe was not alone.  Between 2005 and 2011, the number of registered nurses graduating from for-profit colleges in Florida rose from 114 to 1,034 — an increase of 800 percent.  Average published tuition and fees at these institutions was over $15,000 a year in 2010-11.

Community college nursing programs, which charged about one-fifth of the for-profit tuition, graduated 36 percent more students.

Florida community colleges raised tuition by about $800 on average from 2005 to 2011, Johnson writes. But tuition and fees for all nursing students — public and private — ose by about $3,700 because so many students chose the high-cost private sector.

If community colleges had raised tuition by another $2,000 for nursing programs, paying for enough spots to meet demand, students could pay $5,000 a year without a long wait, he points out. Now, many pay $15,000 a year to skip the waist list.