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Free community college program raises tuition question

According to the latest figures from the State of Michigan, residents filed more than 40,000 applications for Reconnect Michigan. Reconnect Michigan is the state’s new free community college tuition program. The program offers community college tuition to adults age 25 or older, and who have not previously earned a 2-year or 4-year degree. Reconnect Michigan began taking applications two weeks ago.

Free community college is one of those rare ideas that enjoys bipartisan support in the State Legislature. Governor Whitmer has proposed tripling the budget for the program in 2022. The goal of Reconnect Michigan and its predecessor, Futures for Frontliners, is to improve the educational attainment rate here.

Applicants who meet all of the program rules receive in-district tuition rates, provided that they live in a community college district. (About 20% of Michigan residents live outside of community college district boundary lines.)

The popularity of the program should highlight two things: people a want community college education, and they can’t afford one. So, doing whatever you can to get people into classes is a good strategy.

Washtenaw Community College – like many higher education institutions – froze tuition in response to COVID-19. But freezing the tuition rate may not be enough. The state’s “free college” programs have demonstrated quite neatly that there is, in fact, demand for community college education.

Instead of raising tuition and fees, how about piloting a program that lowers the tuition rate? Price is a sticking point for many would-be community college students. So why not lower the rate to make it more accessible to more people? We already know that raising the tuition rate lowers enrollment. Lowering it may bring more people into the classrooms.

Supply, demand and free community college

If the administrators can’t wrap their heads around an across-the-board tuition reduction, how about a reduction based on credit hours? For example, the first 11 credit hours cost $95 each, but if the student enrolls full-time, the per-credit hour rate drops to $80 per credit hour. If the lower rate moves people to full-time status, and potentially increases WCC’s completion rate, it may be worth a try.

Or, charge all in-district students the standard tuition rate, but if they enroll full-time and complete a full-time class load, provide them with a $15 per credit hour rebate. This effectively lowers their tuition rate to $80 per credit hour, but avoids the problem of what happens when a student starts out at the full-time rate, then drops below the threshold during the semester. The student’s tuition would need to be recalculated, and the school would need to issue a bill for the difference. That could lead to a lot of unpaid bills. Rather, applying a completion bonus to the student’s account after the fact could make the process more efficient while still reducing the student’s overall costs.

There are creative ways to get students in the door, and price-intolerant students are likely eligible for federal financial aid. But lowering the tuition rate may require the administration to conserve the institution’s money. That includes not hiring an army of administrators, having a reasonable maintenance budget so maintenance costs don’t get out of hand, and not diverting educational funds to the institutional version of get-rich-quick schemes.

When the market is telling you that your price is too high, raising it isn’t a good way to attract buyers.

Photo Credit: Pedro VEra , via Flickr