More than one-third of post-secondary students in 28 states attend a community college. Traditionally, this been a more affordable option than public or private four-year universities and colleges. However, it now appears that community college may be out of range for cost-conscious students, according to the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
The institute’s report, A Failing Safety Net: Declining Community College Affordability, reveals that community college affordability decreased in over two-thirds of states between 2008 and 2013. The report measures affordability by the percentage of family income it would take to pay all educational expenses, after financial aid, to attend college full time.
Tuition alone at public two-year in-district community college for the 2016-17 academic year averaged $3,520, according to College Board, a nonprofit that helps students prepare for college. That was a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year and doesn’t factor in the cost of books and other expenses.
Some findings from A Failing Safety Net: Declining Community College Affordability:
- In 37 states, many full-time students would be required to work more than 20 hours a week to pay for tuition, fees, room/board, and books – even after accounting for all federal, state, and institutional financial aid.
- Of the 10 states projected to have the most high school graduates by 2028, five rank in the bottom half of states on community college affordability.
- Six of the 10 states with the greatest projected demand for workers with some education and training beyond high school rank poorly on community college affordability.
How has community college become less affordable?
In most states, the report notes that families are now required to contribute a larger portion of income toward college. In some states, families are expected to contribute 20% or more of their annual income, which is not realistic. Keep in mind that former President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address included a call for free community college.
Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, tells GoodCall®, “There was a time when the Pell Grant covered most of the expenses for lower income families – and with just a small loan, students had enough money to cover the community college costs.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s annual Pell Grant program report indicates that the number of students receiving Pell Grants dropped by 7.9% from the previous year; however, among community college students, the number of Pell Grant recipients has declined by 13.3%.
In fact, more students at four-year public schools than community colleges received Pell Grants, which hasn’t happened in more than a decade. “Pell Grants and working don’t come close to paying for college because of the increased costs,” Carnevale says.
He believes that many of the families of prospective community college students are not going to take out student loans. “If that family has a car loan and maybe a mortgage, getting another loan is pretty scary.”
Also, college students with children are an underserved group. Close to half are more likely to attend a community college; however, fewer than half of these schools have a child care center, and the lack of affordable and reliable childcare can cause a further strain on student parents.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, tells GoodCall®, “Community college is increasingly unaffordable, but people will still go because what other option do they have?”
Some critics say the U.S. is too focused on four-year degrees, but efforts to reroute students to study a trade won’t be successful if this option is also unaffordable.
“The students who attend community college will struggle mightily, even forgoing food or housing to try and make it work, then drop out without a degree – and often in debt,” Goldrick-Rab says. “It’s a devastating outcome and given how often this is happening it’s a true crisis.”