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Keeping colleges affordable and accountable


Speakers at the House hearing on state initiatives to cut college costs included Joe May (far right), president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Photo: House Committee
on Education and the Workforce

​Federal lawmakers this week are examining strategies to keep college affordable while ensuring that students are getting the education and training they need for available jobs.

On Wednesday, the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee heard from national and state education leaders on what states and colleges are doing to curb college costs and to ensure results. The strategies discussed ranged from performance-based funding and accelerated credential completion, to credit for prior learning experiences and better credit-transfer policies.

On Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold its hearing on college costs. Invited speakers include Thomas Snyder, president of the Ivy Tech Community College system in Indiana, and Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College in Florida.

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The hearings come as federal appropriators this week craft their proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2012. House Subcommittee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said that federal support for higher education increased 155 percent over the past decade, but college tuition continues to increase.

“If government subsidies aren’t producing more affordable education in the current system, we cannot keep writing bigger checks,” she said. “We need to look to states and postsecondary institutions for creative solutions.”

Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System—which comprises 14 colleges and serves 111,000 students—outlined efforts in his state to reduce costs and improve student success. While Louisiana colleges are struggling financially—enrollment over the past five years has increased 55 percent, while state support has dropped by 37 percent—the system has taken myriad steps to run efficient and effective programs. By merging colleges, nixing redundant courses, aligning programs with market demands, consolidating information technology systems and sharing operations such as payroll and auditing services, the system is saving about $30 million annually, according to May’s written testimony.

Watch the recorded House hearing

Several of the panelists at the hearing noted that more students are opting to complete their general courses at two-year colleges and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. When Louisiana examined its transfer process, it founds that students who earned an associate degree were losing 21-24 semester credit hours in the transfer. Today, students who earn an associate degree at any Louisiana community college can easily transfer to Louisiana State University or any of the state's 14 universities as a junior, May said.

The change also yielded cost savings for students and the state. On average, students save $2,117, while the state saves $1,930 per transfer student, May said. In addition, transfer students with an associate degree also use about $2,750 less in federal Pell Grants because it costs them less to earn their baccalaureate.

Credit hour creep

While examining the transfer process, officials noted inconsistencies with the number of hours needed to earn an associate degree. Over time, many of the programs had grown from the standard 60 semester credit hours to as many as 75, May said.

“This sort of credit hour creep had to be changed,” he said.

In 2010, state lawmakers limited all but a few associate degrees to 60 semester credit hours. The change resulted in a savings of about $1,100 for students and for the state about $792 per student, May said.

“Most importantly, it reduces time to degree,” he added.

Reducing time-to-degree was another strategy that panelists discussed. Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, said that fewer than three in 10 students pursuing an associate degree graduate in three years. And the more time they spend in college, the more costs add up, often resulting in students dropping out without a credential, he said.

Jones also noted that better data is needed on part-time students, adult students and students who receive Pell Grants to determine what types of programs and policies would help those students earn credentials.

Paying for performance

Indiana has also implemented a multi-strategy approach. In 2003, the state started using performance-based funding to increase research at public colleges and universities. Over the years, the formula changed to focus on degree completion, on-time completion and success of at-risk students, said Teresa Lubbers, commissioner of the Indiana Commission on Higher Education. In the 2011-13 biennial budget, the state set aside 5 percent—about $61 million—of overall state support to college and universities toward performance funding, she said.

Some states may be limited in their ability to use performance-based funding, noted Scott Patterson, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. The “maintenance of effort” provision in the federal 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act calls for a certain level of state funding in order to be eligible for federal funding. So states have less flexibility to allocate resources based on need and evidence, and it also serves as a disincentive to make larger or one-time increases toward higher education during better fiscal times, he said.

Accelerated completion also was discussed at the hearing. Lubbers cited Ivy Tech’s Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP), which allows students to complete a two-year degree in 10 months, as an innovative model. It’s an intensive program that requires students to be on campus for 40 hours each week for coursework and group study. Students are encouraged to think of the course as a full-time job and are even provided a $5,200 annual stipend to cover living expenses, Lubbers said.