Connecticut community college faculty and students are concerned about a recent vote by the state’s Board of Regents to increase college tuition by 5%. They are particularly dismayed by the timing of the decision, which comes as many students are still recovering or still suffering from the financial fallout from the pandemic.
Tuition fees for students who earn 12 or more credits will increase from $4,476 to $4,700 per year, a relatively modest increase. But critics of the rise say many students cannot afford the higher tuition fees and stopped taking classes last year and this year due to competing financial needs. System officials say the hike is an unfortunate but necessary step as institutions face an estimated $60 million shortfall. Additionally, community colleges across the state have lost a third of their students over the past decade, with the most staggering year-over-year enrollment losses occurring during the pandemic.
“Nobody ever wants to raise tuition,” said Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System. “I’d rather give it away for free, frankly.”
He estimates that the tuition increase could bring in up to $4 million, which “is helpful, but it won’t be enough to solve our problems.” Falling enrollment was a driving factor in the controversial merger of 12 community colleges scheduled for the summer of 2023.
Similar decisions to increase tuition are being made at community colleges across the country ahead of the 2022-23 academic year. Some university leaders describe the increases as a defensive measure to avoid future financial problems caused by a sharp drop in enrollment, budget deficits and rising inflation. Some community college administrators say the modest annual tuition hikes are a return to normal after a series of unusual tuition freezes instituted in response to the pandemic.
Some faculty and staff and resentful students argue that the economic downturn and job losses caused by the pandemic are making even small tuition hikes painful.
Anna Torres, director of financial aid at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, called the tuition hike “reprehensible” in a letter to the State Board of Regents in February.
She noted that community colleges serve “the largest populations of black and brown students, the largest populations of students from working-class families” and “students who can least likely afford a tuition increase during the economic crisis we are going through”.
Jamie Czikowsky, a student at Tunxis Community College, told the board at a meeting in February that students will have to choose between ‘paying for education or putting food on the table, paying for childcare or other needs base that the extra $224 had provided them.”
“According to my conversations with students, these increases will directly lead to further declines in enrollment,” she added.
Some community college leaders work to explain to students why tuition increases are needed and seek to engage them in discussions about it.
Andrew Bowne, president of Johnson County Community College in Kansas, said administrators made a presentation to the college’s Student Senate explaining the rationale for an increase of $3 per credit hour for district students, $4 for out-of-district students and $5 for international and foreign students in the fall. The college has not increased tuition since 2017.
“If you were to say, ‘Hey, students, do you want a tuition increase?’ most students aren’t going to say, ‘God, I would love one,’” Bowne said. But the Senate chose not to oppose the measure, and it believes it was because they understood college leaders are grappling with declining tuition revenue and rising costs.
Liz Clark, vice president of policy and research at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, noted that community colleges largely depend on a mix of tuition revenue, state credits, and funding. local or municipal funds. While many states currently have healthy budget surpluses, some of their higher education funding formulas allocate state dollars in part based on enrollment—a challenge for community colleges that are experiencing declining enrollment, she said. Meanwhile, federal COVID-19 relief funds that have been a major help for many colleges are running out.
Clark also pointed out that “students who attend community colleges are often high-needs students,” who require more support services, and “this makes higher education more expensive.”
Barnes said CSCU has taken steps to make the tuition increase more affordable for students “most affected by the increase.” For example, the system generally reserves 15% of income for institutional financial aid; it increased that amount to 17% for the next academic year, making about an additional $1.5 million available for low-income students. He also noted that due to the state’s free community college program, federal Pell grant, and state scholarships, more than 70% of students pay no tuition and will not be affected by the ‘increase.
“We are committed to being affordable,” he said. “We hope we can reach out to any subset of students whose access may be compromised by this tuition change.”
James Sawyer, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, said small annual tuition increases are normal and not necessarily a sign that colleges are struggling. His institution plans to raise tuition by 2% in the fall of 2022, which he described as “pretty typical.” He noted that tuition costs make up about 38% of college revenue, and costs tend to increase somewhat from year to year.
“For us, it’s a decision we make every year,” he said. “I think most colleges raise tuition most years. I would say when colleges don’t raise tuition, it’s more unusual. The tuition freeze in response to the pandemic “was more of an anomaly.”
A report from the College Board last year found that higher education institutions on average had “historically low” tuition increases in the 2021-2022 academic year before adjusting for inflation: an increase of 1.3 percent on average for district students at community colleges and 1.6 percent for public four-year students in the state. The increases were less than the rate of inflation in the first eight months of 2021, meaning tuition and average fees decreased from the previous academic year after adjusting for inflation.
Bowne, the Kansas Community College president, noted that during the pandemic his college may have been more thrifty in some ways — travel expenses, for example, have gone down — but those expenses and others are rising again at as public health protocols grow more lax. Inflation has also “gone full steam ahead,” making technology and other college operating costs more expensive.
Evelyn Jorgenson, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College, agreed that two-year institutions like hers have been hit hard by rising inflation. The college hadn’t raised tuition since 2013, but district student tuition will increase 5.3 percent, from $75 to $79 per credit hour, in the fall. Tuition for out-of-district students will increase from $135 to $145, out-of-state tuition will increase from $150 to $164, and international student tuition will increase from $195 to $215 per credit.
Jorgenson said the costs of software, computers, furniture, library books, culinary school ingredients and other essentials have all risen due to a mix of inflation and supply issues. supply chain.
She also noted that the college needed more funds to fund faculty and staff salaries. The emotional toll of the pandemic has caused a series of early retirements, and labor shortages caused by the pandemic have pushed employers to raise wages and made it harder for the college to retain employees. attracted to better paying jobs elsewhere.
Jorgenson said she feels like she has no choice but to raise tuition, and she thinks other colleges instituting tuition increases are in the same position. .
“The only way we can continue to afford to buy these things to run the college and provide a quality education for students…is to raise tuition and fees,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a trend per se. It is a reaction to the reality in which we live. Inflation is taking its toll.
Barnes of CSCU said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more community colleges raise tuition before the fall.
System officials kept tuition flat earlier in the pandemic because they believed an increase would “add insult to injury” for students who were already struggling to stay enrolled, it said. -he declares. But in this new phase of the public health crisis — and in the absence of more federal COVID-19-related relief funds — Connecticut community colleges need “a balanced budget going forward, or we We won’t continue to operate for very long”.