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Published: Sunday, 11/11/2012

Head of the class

In Ohio and around the country, a college education is rapidly becoming out-of-reach for middle and working-class students. Maintaining access to public four-year colleges requires a larger financial commitment from state and federal governments seeking to compete in a global economy.

But there’s another way for states to maintain access to higher education: Making sure they adequately fund, and fully utilize, community colleges.

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Tuition rates at community colleges in Ohio and elsewhere are typically about a third of those at four-year institutions. Two-year schools also offer flexible schedules, and they are far more willing to provide remedial courses.

Even adjusted for inflation and financial aid, the net price for public four-year schools nationwide, including tuition, fees, room and board, rose 4 percent since last year, to $12,110 per year. Costs at private, nonprofit four-year schools are up 4 percent, to $23,840, the College Board reported last month.

Nor has financial aid kept pace with rising college costs. The price of college tuition and fees has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. In Ohio, public four-year colleges would eat up 42 percent of the average family’s paycheck, compared to 28 percent in the early 1990s.

The University of Toledo board of trustees in June approved a 3.5 percent tuition increase to more than $3,900 per semester for in-state students. At Bowling Green State University, tuition also rose 3.5 percent for this year, with tuition and fees each semester totaling nearly $5,200.

State budget cuts and rising operating costs fueled a 15 percent increase in average tuition costs at four-year public universities between 2008 and 2010.

By contrast, tuition at Ohio’s 23 community colleges, serving more than 300,000 students, averages $3,800 a year, said Jeffrey Ortega of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges offer students an inexpensive and accessible way to start on a four-year degree, and to earn a two-year associate’s degree. Community college transfers to four-year schools need to become seamless to save students time and money.

But community colleges offer much more than an inexpensive start to a four-year degree. They provide training for hundreds of two-year and one-year vocational programs in high-demand, high-paying fields such as nursing and health care.

Most new jobs — 60 to 70 percent — require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, said Ronald Abrams, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. A four-year degree is simply not for everyone.

As demands on community colleges grow, Pell grants for community college students should expand. Some financial aid and grants ought to target students entering high-demand fields. At least some government aid for noncredit work force development and retraining classes should go directly to community colleges so that they can maintain high-quality, relevant programs.

Given the rising costs of four-year colleges, as well as an increasingly technical job market, it’s time for educators, politicians, students, parents, and even guidance counselors to rethink traditional notions about higher education and focus more attention and resources on community colleges.



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