Cost makes the difference for community college bachelor’s students

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When Mark chose a college, affordability was top of mind.

“Cost was a big factor for me. I wanted to be able to pay for college without taking out big loans, or really any loans, and this was really the only option when I started factoring that in,” he said.

Mark is an adult student and was seeking a career change to the high-demand field of software development. He’s not alone. Today’s college students are often older and more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and they may be working one or more jobs, raising families and striving to make ends meet. Postsecondary education systems built years ago gave little consideration for students like Mark, and unfortunately, Covid made college-going even more challenging. 

The Covid health crisis drove home the urgency of intentionally designing systems that support student success, including creating more accessible, flexible and adaptable college degree programs. One access point is bachelor’s degrees offered by community colleges. Today, almost half of the states authorize community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, mostly in high-demand career fields.

It comes back to cost

In interviews I conducted with nine students enrolled in the Green River College (GRC) software development bachelor’s program in Washington state, Mark said he chose to get his bachelor’s degree from GRC, just like eight of his fellow classmates in the group, with an eye toward affordability as the main driver. 

Other factors impacted GRC student decisions, including the close proximity from home to the college, and positive experiences in prior associate-degree programs at GRC. But, looking more deeply, these factors tie back to cost.

Despite the partially online nature of the program, some classes and college services require in-person attendance, making the college’s location important to these students. One working mother emphasized the close proximity of the college to her home as a means of making college affordable, saying “Every minute I spend commuting translates to additional childcare expenses, as well as extra fuel and parking costs.”

For this mom and other adults like her, the decision to go to college doesn’t hinge on tuition cost alone; she must consider the overall cost of college attendance.

Opening doors to the baccalaureate

In previous research with community college baccalaureate (CCB) students, my colleagues Debra Bragg, Lia Wetzstein and I found most of the 17 CCB students and graduates we interviewed said they wouldn’t have pursued a bachelor’s degree were it not for the community college. Like the GRC students, many cited affordability as a major draw. This sentiment was echoed by students in California where 56% of CCB students said they would not have pursued the bachelor’s degree outside of the community college.

And it’s true that community college baccalaureates are less expensive for students. In a 2022 study of 10 CCB-authorizing states, researchers Ivy Love and Iris Palmer found that half required CCB institutions to keep upper-division tuition level with lower-division tuition.

Even in the states that don’t place this requirement on community colleges, tuition is still less than public universities. For example, the legislation authorizing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in most of Arizona requires community colleges to cap the price of baccalaureate-level courses at 150% or less than the cost of their associate-level courses. In the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), tuition is set around $3,000 per semester, maximum, for a bachelor’s degree program — around one-fourth to half of the cost of attending a state university, according to MCCCD Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales.

“With students leaving higher education with mounds of student debt, this would be an opportunity to have access to high-quality, affordable [education] and hopefully leave community college with little to no debt and a bachelor’s degree in hand,” Gonzales told Inside Higher Ed.

Similarly, in California, the average bachelor’s degree at a community college costs $10,560, which is “less than half the tuition at even the most affordable public universities,” according to the Community College Chancellor’s Office.

In their study of CCB in California, Hai Hoang, Davis Vo and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar conclude that “CCBs have provided an affordable, accessible pathway to baccalaureate attainment for older students, first- generation college students, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students experiencing homelessness, students with disability, students impacted by the foster care system, student veterans, and students of color.”

What strikes me in interviewing community college bachelor’s students is that affordability is an important and underappreciated factor in student choice to attend CCB programs. As the costs and necessity of postsecondary education grow, the higher education sector needs to embrace structural change to meet the needs of increasingly cost-conscious students. Allowing and encouraging community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in high-demand fields may do a lot to address unmet potential for students to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Thank you to Strada Education Foundation for supporting this work.

About the Author

Elizabeth Meza
Elizabeth Meza, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist in the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.