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Chapter 1: Encourage More Students to Attend Community College

The average cost of educating a person at a community college is markedly lower than that of four year institutions. Tuition levels for students are seldom much more than one-half of what they are at four-year schools, and governmental subsidies per student tend to be lower as well. A very significant savings in overall college costs could occur simply by increasing the proportion of Americans attending lower cost schools, including for-profit proprietary institutions.

A large portion of students attending both two and four-year schools drop out, often because of academic difficulties.  Too many students whose high school grades and test scores indicate they would have difficulty with four-year schools enroll anyhow. These students not only accrue large personal debts but also impose a burden on society in the form of federal financial assistance and unwarranted subsidies to state schools. Four-year schools should be discouraged—perhaps even actively prohibited–from accepting many of these students. Students instead should be encouraged to enroll in two-year colleges; those who succeed academically can then move on to four-year schools.

One difficulty with the scenario above is that it is often difficult for students to transfer to four-year schools without a significant loss of credit—meaning the total college experience extends beyond four years and therefore becomes more costly. State higher education coordinating boards, state boards of education, state governments and, above all, school officials should work to make credit transfer relatively seamless and cost efficient. This means there should be more communication and coordination between the two types of higher educational institutions. Perhaps financial incentives need to be offered to the four-year schools who demonstrate that they are accepting more and more community college transfers—students who are actually ready for their third year of college.

How much can be saved by increasing the proportion of students in two-year community colleges? A lot. Let us compare two otherwise identical states who both educate two- and four- year students, respectively, at a cost to society of $10,000 and $25,000 each annually. Suppose the first state has 75 percent of its undergraduates in four-year schools and 25 percent in two-year ones, while the second state has equal numbers in each type of institution. Total per student costs for the first state would be $21,250, while for the second state they would be $17,500, or 17.6 percent less.

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