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Rising community college tuition a burden

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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As the costs associated with attending a four-year university continue to rise, many students have opted to attend community colleges. Unfortunately, many of these institutions are beginning to face the same affordability issue.

A recent analysis of the Iowa Department of Education's 2012 Tuition and Fees Report shows this year's state community-college attendance fees increased by nearly 6 percent over last year's total, despite the fact that community college costs in Iowa were also 75 percent above the national average. In 2009, they were 60 percent above the national average. This, combined with a dwindling supply of available financial aid, has exacerbated the overwhelming costs of attaining a higher education in the state.

The rising costs are troublesome. The tremendous costs of attending college have not only restricted financial growth, they undermined our notion of the American Dream, an ethos that continues to weaken in credibility. Before this emerging trend is allowed to gain momentum, we, as both a state and nation, need to commit to maintaining access to higher education by keeping community colleges affordable.

The costs of attending a four-year university are increasing rapidly. When adjusted for inflation, the cost and fees of attending a four-year university have more than doubled since the year 2000. The exorbitant rise in college tuition has had a deleterious effect on the national economy, because students today are often inundated by excessive student loan debt.

Enrollments at community colleges have seen unprecedented growth, especially since the economic downturn. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community-college enrollment nationally increased by nearly 15 percent between 2008 and 2009. In Iowa, last year marked the state's all-time highest enrollment for community colleges to date.

Clearly, community colleges are one of the most important aspects of our modern educational structure. They provide access to higher education for those without the financial means to attend an expensive college and also provide a host of services that large (and often bloated) universities cannot. By offering transfer programs, they also allow students to begin college at an affordable level and gain a positive academic record before transitioning into the more expensive universities.

But many community colleges often face adversity when requesting state appropriations, which can be used to lower costs and improve education.

"Unfortunately, community colleges are neither thought of in the context of higher education, nor are they thought of in the context of K-12, nor do they seem to have the clout of either," Kirkwood Community College economics Professor Saul Mekies told the DI Editorial Board on Thursday. "Yet, the Legislature does recognize that … community colleges provide a vital link to Iowa's work force and to higher education."

These colleges provide opportunities and services for members of our community that four-year schools often overlook. Many cater to unconventional students, such as a single parent or longtime worker attending college for the first time. By using long-distance learning or providing evening classes at an affordable price, these motivated individuals are able to reach for higher levels of financial security and intellectual faculty.

"Community colleges cannot become an answer for society's entire problem," Mekies said. "In many ways, community colleges are there to create a seamless transition to higher education or training."

Without affordable college access, those without money would be at a further disadvantage in working to achieve financial stability. The current rift in income disparity will then be prone to intensification.

Some may argue that not everyone needs to attend college, and they can certainly make a compelling point. The trend the country is witnessing, however, is much more expansive and complex than any such argument addresses. What we're seeing isn't related to choice, it is related to opportunity.

"As state and national support has dipped in the past three years, we have all had to raise our tuition at rates higher than ever before," Kirkwood Community College President Mick Starcevich said Thursday in an email to the Editorial Board. "This makes it very hard on our neediest students and those most unable to fund their own education."

Restricting access to higher education is something we simply cannot allow to happen. While there's no quick fix to the exponentially rising tuition at public and private universities, we still have time to stop the same from happening to the entire system. It's time we drew a line in the sand for community colleges by prioritizing education in regard to tax revenue — elementary, higher, and otherwise.


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