Will Community Colleges Be More Expensive?

As expected, President Obama’s plan to aid community colleges, to the tune of $12 billion, drew impressive praise. “Dean Dad,” who blogs at Inside Higher Ed called the president’s Macomb Community College speech in Michigan, which outlined the program, “by far the most intelligent presidential discussion of higher education I’ve ever seen.” But there were the usual apprehensions that a large increase in government funding will lead to higher tuitions. “Dean Dad” notes that “not one cent” of the $12 billion pledged by the president will go to operating budgets, at a time when those budgets are being slashed by the states. With no new operating funding, and expectations of a vast expansion of the colleges, the money will likely have to come from rising tuition and fees. Miami Dade College, for instance, announced heavy cuts in staff and programs, and the school said it expects to turn away thousands of prospective students.
Another factor is the trend toward “bells and whistles” at traditionally spare community colleges. Many of the colleges are responding to increased demand for facilities and amenities like those at traditional four-year colleges. Dormitories and stand-alone student centers are appearing at community colleges, and at some, there is pressure to build gyms. These increased services mean more maintenance costs, including a bigger payroll. David Moltz, writing at Inside Higher Ed, quotes Deborah DiCroce, president of Tidewater Community College: “We’re finding that with our changing demographics, our students are more consumer savvy and expect all the bells and whistles of a full university experience.” Community college students know about the lavish spa-like luxuries at many four-year colleges, and now want versions at their own schools. At the fanciest elite colleges, administrators say they are simple responding to demand—they will lose good students if the campus lacks a climbing wall and the competition doesn’t. In addition, some trend-spotters say that at all levels, colleges now aim to upgrade themselves to the level of more highly regarded campuses. In California, or so it is said, community colleges want to imitate the four-year Cal State system, while Cal State colleges, which were built to stress teaching, now talk about adding research facilities like the big-time University of California campuses, while those institutions, in turn, now yearn for the prestige of the Ivy League.
Daniel Bennett, writing at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity site, says the “bells and whistles” trend will lead to a spike in tuition similar to the annual rises in tuition that four-year colleges have experience over the last few decades. The trend, he says, will likely eliminate the comparative advantage of community colleges as low-cost providers.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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