EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 3, 2013

Column: Community colleges offer students more for their money

Lane A. Glenn
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Recently, I was invited to speak to the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, which was meeting at UMass Lowell to hear testimony about the cost of college and student debt. Like a lot of states, Massachusetts is considering what kinds of policies, legislation, and funding strategies might help students and their families better afford college.

In my remarks, I shared my own story. I told them that back in the mid-1980s, I was a pretty smart high school kid with limited financial resources, who was able to attend my local community college thanks to a $150 scholarship from a local bank.

Because of scholarships and part-time jobs, I didn’t have to take out a student loan until I hit grad school, and I was able to pay it off a few years after I started working.

There is no doubt, times have changed.

Tuition and fees at most community colleges in the country now cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a year, and because the cost of everything else has also climbed, it has become increasingly difficult for students to do what I did and work their way through college, paying as they go.

About two-thirds of students graduating from American colleges and universities today have accumulated some amount of debt. The recent average, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) Project on Student Debt, is $26,600, and about one in 10 graduates racks up more than $40,000.

In my testimony, I reminded the committee that not all colleges and universities are alike, and whatever policies, legislation, and funding strategies a state like Massachusetts comes up with to ensure colleges are fair and affordable should recognize this.

For example, we know that, as measured by family income and financial aid eligibility, Northern Essex Community College has one of the largest populations of low-income students in the state. Nearly 75 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid, and the college itself contributes nearly $500,000 each year in direct assistance.

That is one reason we have done all we can to keep our costs to students as low as possible. This year, we remain one of the most affordable, accessible, and convenient options for a college education anywhere in Massachusetts.

Families who take out loans to help pay for education at NECC typically borrow around $5,250 for a student’s undergraduate studies. The federal loan payment over 10 years for this amount is about $60 a month (a little less than the average cell phone bill).

And, as I explained to the sub-committee, one year after graduation, 95 percent of our students are either successfully employed, or successfully transferred to a four-year institution.

We want to be as responsible as we can be with our costs, and with the quality of education at NECC, ensuring that our students are able to repay whatever modest debts they might take on, buy houses, raise families, and contribute to the economy and well-being of the communities where they live.

I suggested three strategies for the committee to consider, strategies to help keep a college education affordable for our students and their families:

Increase public funding for community colleges in the state. Community colleges in Massachusetts educate more than 50 percent of the state’s undergraduates, including the largest portion of first-generation, low-income, minority, learning-disabled, and academically challenged students; yet receive only 25 percent of the funding for higher education. Over the last ten years, enrollment at most of the state’s 15 community colleges has climbed 35 percent or more, while inflation-adjusted state funding has dropped by about 25 percent. Additional public support for community colleges allows us to keep our costs to students low, so they can minimize or avoid loans and debt.

Communicate the benefits of starting at a community college. Partly because of the large number of private colleges and universities in Massachusetts, community colleges have often not received the attention they deserve from students, families, high school counselors, and public policy-makers when it comes to laying out options for choosing and paying for that degree. This has been changing recently, with more students and families recognizing (like I did back in 1985) that a couple years at a community college can be an affordable great start. But we can do even more to integrate community colleges into a robust system of public higher education in the commonwealth.

Support high school dual enrollment options. One of the big challenges for many students is that they are not ready for college when they get there. About 75 percent of new NECC students must take some kind of pre-college, developmental math, writing, or reading classes. When they do, it takes them more time and more money to get through college, and sometimes they give up along the way.

However, when we can work with those students before they get to NECC, and offer them “dual enrollment” classes that help prepare them for college while they are still in high school, we can reduce or even eliminate the need for those “remedial” classes, and they are more likely to succeed.

A hundred and fifty bucks doesn’t go as far today as it did in 1985, but for a high quality education that won’t straddle you with debt, community colleges like NECC are very smart investment.

Dr. Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence.