Consider the High Cost of Low Tuition at Community Colleges

Lower tuition at community colleges has led to too many students and not enough seats.

With the low cost of tuition, many community colleges are facing the dilemma of too many students and not enough seats.

With the low cost of tuition, many community colleges are facing the dilemma of too many students and not enough seats.

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All Californians will pay the same low tuition for classes at Santa Monica College—if they can get off the wait list. Student protests forced the school's board of trustees to suspend its plan to charge a premium for access to new sections of high-demand classes. The state community college chancellor, Jack Scott, has said that he believes two-tier pricing is not permissible under state law.

But the problem—too many students and not enough seats—remains, both at Santa Monica College and at many community colleges across the country.

"Over the past decade, community colleges have shouldered the lion's share of higher education enrollment growth, serving over 1.6 million additional students with no more money per student," according to "Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation's Future," a new report by the American Association of Community Colleges.

To ensure access, community colleges have tried to keep tuition low—but, as a result, "community colleges are not funded at a level permitting them to perform the monumental tasks expected of them."

[Read about graduation rates at community colleges.]

California's community colleges, which have long been among the nation's most affordable, offer generous fee waivers and have long wait lists. Santa Monica College's board saw two-tiered pricing as a "soak-the-rich" solution, reports the Los Angeles Times. Students who could afford it would pay $180 per unit for the new classes, freeing space in $46-per-unit classes for low-income students. The plan was "an opportunity to be Robin Hood," said trustee Rob Rader.

With a strong reputation as a transfer college, Santa Monica already charges international students $275 per unit and enrolls more of them than any other U.S. community college. The profits—an estimated $13 million a year—benefit the whole campus.

A number of community colleges charge a premium for high-cost classes that require small sizes or well-equipped labs.

Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, for instance, adds a $50 fee for nursing and dental hygiene classes, but recently ended higher tuition for its online health careers program. Pima Community College in Arizona charges more for veterinary technology and dental hygiene classes, and at Aims Community College in Colorado, students pay more to study aviation, radiologic technology, and nursing.

In the Houston area, the fast-growing Lone Star College System is linking tuition to the cost of each program. "Differential tuition," which is being phased in, is modest. While the standard three-credit class costs $200, the priciest classes—agriculture, architecture and precision production, career pilot, and dental hygiene—cost an extra $4 per credit hour for a total of $212.

[See what some community colleges are doing to retain low-income students.]

In an era of reduced funding, low tuition may not benefit low-income students, analysts say.

When students can't get the courses they need at a low-cost community college, they often turn to a costlier for-profit college. The for-profits expand to meet demand, so there are no wait lists. Low-income and minority students are the most likely to choose for-profit institutions.

If community colleges raised tuition to fund additional classes, students would still pay less—without waiting—than they would at for-profit colleges, argues Nate Johnson of Postsecondary Analytics.

Community colleges are creating the academic equivalent of Soviet bread lines, write economists Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson in a recent blog post on The Chronicle of Higher Education. Wait lists seem egalitarian, but "all that time spent in line is pure waste—time that could, for example, be put to productive use earning the money to pay a premium price for the thing you're waiting for."

[See how community colleges offer a cheaper alternative to grad school.]

Anything that delays community college students' progress to a degree makes it less likely they'll ever complete that journey, warns Complete College America in a 2011 report, "Time is the Enemy." Delays are especially damaging to the graduation chances of disadvantaged students.