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Community Colleges Make Case for Greater Public Investment

Going to a community college is a bargain. For students, tuition is a fraction of what is compared to private or public four-year schools. For the government, the return on investment is substantial as graduates pay more in tax dollars because they make more money.

A new policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges chronicles how more education translates into higher earnings and, therefore, higher taxes paid.

Those finishing a certificate or some college make about 13 percent money more than those with just a high school diploma. Graduating with an associate degree raises earning power by another 7 percent, the brief explains. Having a bachelor's degree increases earnings by an additional 37 percent from those with a two-year degree. Also, the unemployment rate drops with each higher level of education.

"There are different levels of educational attainment and each builds on the one before," says Chris Mullins, the AACC's program director for policy analysis and a co-author of the brief, "Community College Contributions." "More and more people are realizing that it's not just one degree, it's a collection of different opportunities... There are steps toward a bachelor's that have value along the way." Families from many backgrounds are increasingly seeing community college is a viable option, as they realize there are good jobs for those who earn a certificate or associate degree, he adds.

Noting that state appropriations (per full-time-equivalent student) in 2011 were at their lowest in at least two decades, authors Mullin and Kent Phillippe make the case for increasing public funding for community colleges. While community colleges serve nearly half of undergraduates, they have historically received approximately 20 percent of state tax appropriations for higher education. Research has shown that educational attainment rates improve with increases in state fiscal support, the brief explains.

"The workforce of the future will increasingly rely on occupations that require college-educated workers, and many of those workers will need the education and training provided at the sub-baccalaureate level to enter a field," according to the AACC brief. "Given that there are numerous public and private returns associated with educational attainment, it is therefore prudent to align fiscal resources with the workforce of the future.

The affordability of community college is an lure for many students.

The average annual published tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was $3,131 in 2012-13, according to the College Board's most recent trends report. This is a deal compared with the cost of attending a college in the for-profit sector ($15,172), a four-year, nonprofit private college ($29,056) or a four-year, in-state institution ($8,655).

Full-time students at public,two-year colleges receive an estimated average of $4,350 in grant aid from all sources and federal tax benefits to help them pay tuition and fees, as well as some of their other college-related expenses.


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