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The cost of educating a community college student

The Hechinger Report offers an interesting analysis of the cost of educating a community college student. The issue arises tangentially; Texas is redesigning its community college funding model, so it makes sense, therefore, to know how much it costs to graduate a two-year student.

The question of cost-per-student is a common one among K-12 school districts and private schools at all levels. In the case of K-12 school districts, many states base school funding on headcount. In the case of a private school, solvency depends on understanding how much the school spends versus how much it takes in. Ask any private school director how much it costs to educate a student, and I guarantee they will reel off the number without thinking.

But most public community colleges don’t look at their students or their expenses in that way. So, the cost-per-student question often goes unanswered, or the respondent can only make a vague guess.

Knowing how much it costs to educate a community college student is a question with multiple answers. According to research conducted by the American Institutes for Research, Rutgers University, and the University of Tennessee, the answer is a solid, “It depends.”

It depends heavily on the age and household income of a student and whether the student is a first-generation college student. The older the student is the less likely s/he is to complete 15 credits or pass a college-level math class, two major milestones toward degree completion. Students who come from low-income households and first generation college students need more academic and non-academic support than students who come from wealthier homes. That extra support costs money and raises the average cost of educating a community college student.

Community college students have varying degrees of need

According to the report, dual enrolled high school students have a net positive effect on cost because they require less support. That’s not to say the answer to the riddle is admitting as many dual enrolled students as possible. Too many dual enrolled students will decrease the number of traditional and non-traditional students who enroll. (Who wants to go to high school again?)

But putting a dollar figure on the cost of educating a community college student is a worthwhile endeavor. Knowing the answer to that question means we can dissect the question further: how much are we spending on non-instructional expenses? Which students are least likely to succeed? What additional supports could help them get past the roadblocks? How much do those roadblocks cost to remove?

Of course, Washtenaw Community College isn’t really interested in encouraging community college students to earn two-year degrees. For better or worse, WCC is more invested in issuing non-degree certificates, even though certificates return less to the student and to the community, and they don’t do enough to move adult learners to the State of Michigan’s 60-credit goal. In short, WCC’s brilliant strategy comes at a high cost and delivers a low impact.

Knowing how much it costs to educate a community college student based on their particular challenges can help the Administration determine how to fund college resources to improve the odds of graduating for students with the greatest needs.

Photo Credit: ACC District, via Flickr