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Published: Tuesday, 6/27/2006

Onward - and upward

WHEN even affordable alternatives to four-year college educations get expensive, options begin to close for people of modest means. Owens Community College recently announced a tuition hike for the next academic year of 5.99 percent, pushing the bill for a full-time student to $2,972.

Owens would be quick to note that it is still an educational bargain compared to four-year institutions - and even 18 other community colleges statewide. That's true enough, but small consolation to students for whom every dollar, every $10, every annual tuition increase, matters greatly.

How many won't bother to enroll in the fall because they can't afford to, or how many currently enrolled won't return for the same reason? Those who manage to stay in school may still have to drop out at various intervals to earn more tuition money to self-fund their education.

The board of trustees said it reluctantly raised tuition to balance the school's projected $79 million budget. A big chunk of that will go toward employee salaries to offset what state subsidies don't cover.

The state has systematically cut Ohio's public higher education budget and, just as at the four-year campuses, the burden lands squarely on the backs of students, in this case students trying to save money by choosing a community college in the first place.

"Living in a less-than-perfect world," said Trustee Jack Sculfort, "we did what we did to balance different factors."

But tuition increases have a way of compounding. Since 2000, tuition costs at Owens have risen by 65 percent.

To be fair, the school, like every other public college, struggles to maintain quality academic standards despite the diminished levels of state funding.

Still, tuition increases remain a totally predictable fallback position for Owens and other institutions of higher education. If students can't afford to go there, what good are all the improvements in academic programs and services?

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