Friday Fragments: Finance Edition | Confessions of a Community College Dean – Inside Higher Ed

I was heartened this week to see New Jersey expand its “free community college program,” even if it isn’t quite that. Previously, the Community College Opportunity Grant offered tuition-free community college for students from families with adjusted gross incomes of $65,000 or less. That’s still true, but now they’ve added a 50 percent tuition discount for students from families with AGIs over $65,000 but under $80,000.

(The state also offers years three and four free at the four-year public institutions for families with AGIs under $65,000.)

Income-based benefits like these often have abrupt cutoffs that feel punitive if you just miss them. At least now there’s a gentler phaseout.

It’s a step in the right direction. For a high-cost state like this, a family living on $70,000 may have a hard time coming up with $7,000 tuition. And they are still on the hook for books, transportation and the rest of the costs of college.

I maintain that a “second year free” program without an income cap would be more politically sustainable; it would shift the perception of the benefit from something given to something earned. In American political culture, that matters. It would also get around the inevitable resentment from folks who make just a hair too much for the benefit. But this will still make a concrete difference for a substantial number of students across the state at a moment when the opportunity cost of college is at record highs. So, kudos.

Along those lines, Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed opinion piece by Jay Urwitz about the marginal good that would be achieved by funneling more funds toward community colleges was refreshing. It noted, as many of us have over the years, that the institutions whose students need the most support get the least support. And that’s true even when direct operating aid per student is the same, because community colleges charge much lower tuition (when they charge it at all) and typically get less philanthropic support.

I’ll build on the piece in the spirit of “yes, and.”

First, let’s define “student.” I’d count human beings, as opposed to “full-time equivalents.” FTEs measure credit hours, so they’re a decent index of certain kinds of instructional costs. But they don’t speak at all to the costs of support—counseling, financial aid, tutoring. A part-time student can consume just as much counseling support as a full-time student. That’s not unusual, given that one reason students attend part-time is that they have complicated lives and are pulled in multiple directions. We need to be able to support the human beings we serve, whether they’re taking full loads or not.

Second, and I really can’t stress this enough, the most useful money is operating money. This may be counterintuitive, but it’s true. This is the money that pays salaries, utilities and the regular costs of running the place. It’s distinct from capital funding, which pays for buildings and equipment. It’s also distinct from grant funding, which is time-bound, highly prescriptive and often competitive. Operating funds are what make it possible to replace a retiring history professor with a new history professor. Sustainable success takes time to build; money that comes and goes quickly isn’t as useful as money that can be counted on for years to come.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that community colleges were never designed to be self-supporting. They were supposed to be accessible to people who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere. The decades-long shift of the cost burden from the polity to students has undermined the mission. A call for funding shouldn’t be seen as new; it should be understood as a return to the original conception of the place.

We’re not going to get there all at once. But it’s encouraging to see folks pushing in the right direction.

TG’s friend group has mostly decided where they are going next year. Lucky winners include the University of Vermont, the University of Delaware, the Maritime Academy, the Pratt Institute, Arizona State (via the Starbucks program) and Brookdale Community College.

TG will decide her lucky winner in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

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