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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the June/July edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Growing up in small-town Greeley, Colo., Grace Van Earden didn’t start thinking about her career path until her senior year of high school. Even then, she didn’t know for sure what she wanted to do. Though she did manage to narrow it down to “something in in health care.”
She’d heard good things about the radiologic technology program at Aims Community College, not far from her home. But the program was popular and she had to wait nearly two years to get in.
She passed time by earning an arts degree at the college and fulfilling certain radiology prerequisites. It was then that she learned about College Promise, a scholarship program that let participating students from her hometown attend their first year at Aims for little or no cost. She applied and received $2,500 to offset the cost of her education.
Now enrolled in the radiology program, Van Earden attributes much of her academic success to the financial help she’s received along the way.
“A lot of students in radiology try to balance family, a job and the program, which is very stressful,” she says. “Because of the scholarship, I was able to quit my job last semester and focus on my studies.”
In the last two years, College Promise has helped more than 360 students enroll at Aims, which led to 61 educational certificates and/or degrees earned. The program is funded by local business leaders with a vested interested in stocking the area’s talent pool.
Across the country, the cost of higher education is rising. Community colleges, long seen as an affordable alternative to expensive four-year colleges and universities, are not immune to economic pressures. Faced with a combination of high enrollments and shrinking budgets, many institutions have been forced to consider tuition hikes and other fees that are often passed on to students.
The College Board reports that average yearly tuition at public two-year colleges increased by 5.8 percent between the 2011–2012 school year and the 2012–2013 school year, to $3,131. Books and supplies can set students back an additional $1,200 a year.
Aware that rising costs could force some community colleges to compromise their long-standing open-door policies, administrators have put in place programs and incentives to offset the higher price of the average community college education.
The California Community Colleges, among the most economically challenged institutions of their kind in the country, recently launched the I Can Afford College campaign—a statewide program to increase awareness among current and prospective community college students of year-round financial-aid opportunities.
“Even though we have one of the most affordable systems of higher education, for many Californians the cost is still unaffordable,” says Paige Marlatt-Dorr, director of communications for California Community Colleges. “We want to make sure money isn’t a barrier to pursuing a degree or career training.”
Students use the I Can Afford College website to connect with local professionals and receive free one-on-one help identifying and applying for aid. The campaign partners with Clear Channel Communications to run sweepstakes that drive additional traffic to the site. For example, the Tell Us What Your Future Will Be essay contest, which ran from April to June of this year, awarded $5,000 to one recipient to use for college and related expenses.
“Students need to know that there is a variety of financial aid opportunities available to help them attend community college, and that’s the role the I Can Afford College program has served,” says Kathy Degn, extended opportunity programs and services and CARE coordinator at Cosumnes River College. “It helps break down the myths about aid, which in turn allows the financial aid offices to focus on serving students.”
Since the website first launched in 2004, 2 million people have visited it. Even better, administrators say the number of students receiving financial aid has increased by nearly 70 percent.
No more (paper) textbooks
Textbooks are expensive—so much so that many community college students wait to buy them until after the semester has started when they cash their financial aid checks. Still others see the price tag and skip buying books altogether.
OERs increase access, drop book expenses
But a movement called College Open Textbooks (COT) is trying to change all that. Created by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Open Doors Group, the COT Collaborative is a group of colleges, government agencies, and education nonprofits focused on driving awareness and the adoption of open textbooks through online resources, training, peer reviews and mentoring.
“Although community college tuition is lower than a four-year college, the educational materials cost the same,” says Charles Key, director of adoptions and grants for Open Doors Group. “The cost of textbooks has risen at a rate that outstrips anything else in the economy, and in some cases students at two-year colleges pay more for their textbooks than for tuition.”
Washington, a leader in the open educational resources movement, announced in April that its State Board for Community and Technical Colleges had completed open-source materials for 81 core courses. Anyone in the state’s 34 community and technical colleges (and four-year colleges, too) can use, customize, and distribute the course materials. Since the project began in 2011, it has saved students an estimated $5.5 million in textbook costs.
Textbook-free project could cut degree costs by a third
At Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, the math department spent three years creating six open source courses.
“The materials for the courses—from arithmetic to pre-calculus—are available for students to download for free,” says instructor Donna Gaudet.
If students prefer, they can pay a discounted rate to buy a paper copy of the material.
The team created the curriculum for four of the courses from scratch rather than compiling information from materials that already existed.
“We became our own publishing house, which requires constant maintenance and updating, and it’s been a tremendous amount of work, but we did it because we wanted to make access to materials a priority,” says Gaudet, who estimates that the open-source materials saved students $184,000 last fall. “We get a lot of first-generation students in our developmental math classes, and telling them their books will cost more than $100 can stop them from coming. That’s not OK.”
Key says that COT is working hard to get more colleges on board. Though he suggests the landscape is changing, thanks largely to the advent of massive open online courses and other educational delivery mechanisms, including Khan Academy and MIT’s OpenCourseWare.
“COT connects colleges with a community so they don’t have to start from scratch. We promote communities of practitioners that can support each other,” Key says.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges