College affordability is a hot topic of conversation across the country. As a community college professional, you are likely sitting in the proverbial catbird seat knowing that community colleges offer low-cost, high-quality programs to millions of Americans looking to achieve their educational goals.
I imagine, if you’re anything like me, that you are proud to tout the many positive things that our colleges provide for all our students, no matter their education and career goals. But we all know that cost is just one factor in affordability. It’s like buying your first car and realizing that you may be able to afford the monthly payment but you will also have to pay for gas, maintenance, repairs and insurance. Suddenly, that affordable monthly payment may not be a great value after all. For many students, college affordability is similarly complex.
Community college appears affordable, but when you stop to consider the totality of costs of higher education, the equation becomes more complex. Students perform this cost-benefit analysis before they even begin to apply for admission to your college.
A cost-benefit decision
Like many of you, running the numbers provides data to support sound decision-making as you manage the college’s resources — human, capital, and fiscal. You are evaluating how different investments — time, effort, money — pay off in the quest to advance an agenda. For students, they look at the cost of classes and books, the loss of wages while they are in class, transportation and housing costs, and childcare or other family support. They look at those investments and then determine if the payoff of earning the degree, transfer and workforce skills will pay them in future dividends. They are running the numbers in order to make a sound decision.
Have you run the numbers on college affordability for your programs? Nationally, we know that the first two years of postsecondary education can be completed at a community college for about a third of what it costs to go to a publicly-funded state university, or just under $3,700. And, more good news is that full-time workers with an associate degree earn $16,000 more per year than someone that does not complete high school and more than $6,000 more than someone that earns a high school diploma. The student has clear data that show the benefit of sacrificing salary and time to complete an education beyond high school.
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When you look at your data, does it tell the whole story? That’s a question that we are asking ourselves at AACC. When we look at the overall costs of college, we must consider that new generations of students are living and working in ways that may not be supported by the traditional models of learning that many of us employ. Because of this, students now and in the future may not see a program of study as having value.
We are already hearing that value is placed in learning a skill to advance to the next level. We often talk about skill development in non-credit offerings, but how do we account for this way of learning in our current traditional models?
As we continue to frame the equity agenda framed in the AACC’s Unfinished Business initiative, this is one of the factors that we must consider as we look to close the achievement gaps for community college students. No longer can we rely solely on traditional delivery methods and programs. We have to ensure that our strategies and planning will truly set the course for future success for students and our communities. We have to look beyond our own experiences and view measures of success from different perspectives to fully understand what future students will value in higher education.