Community college costs rising in Washington; CBC not part of trend

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 25, 2012 

The cost of attending a community college is on the rise in Washington, and state officials have said it may be leading to lower enrollment in community and technical colleges across the state.

But that isn't the case at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

The college had 5,333 full-time students as of last Thursday, an increase of 95 students compared with the same time last year.

And that's despite the cost of attending being on par with the other 33 community colleges across the state, where tuition averages $4,000 to $5,000 per year, reported The Associated Press.

CBC President Rich Cummins attributed the college's increased enrollment to several factors, including a stillgrowing Tri-City community with an 8 percent unemployment rate. However, the college is also a good option for students who want a good education, but can't afford to move to Pullman, Seattle or another community to live on their own.

"I think more students are staying at home," he said.

The cost to attend community college is about the same as what people paid a decade ago to attend the University of Washington. College officials have said that's still a bargain compared with what it costs to attend UW today, which is more than $12,000 in tuition alone at the university's Seattle campus, according to The Associated Press.

The estimated cost of tuition and fees for three quarters at CBC is $4,350 for a student taking 15 credit hours per quarter, according to the school's website. That's not including books, living expenses, transportation and other costs.

Statewide, community college enrollment is down 6 percent. CBC started out with slightly fewer students at the beginning of the current quarter, but the number of full-time students is now up 1.79 percent, said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.

The biggest increases are from the college's Running Start, which allows high school students to pursue associate degrees, and worker retraining programs.

Murray added that the enrollment increase is despite the school having completely phased out its health information technology and office technology programs, which contributed more than 100 full-time students to the school's rosters.

Cummins said the growth in the Tri-Cities is counter to the stable to slightly declining populations in other parts of the state, giving CBC a boost in the population it serves. The success of CBC's students when they transfer to a four-year college has given the college a good reputation, he said.

Additionally, more people are seeing the value of getting some education after high school. Cummins said he's been sharing information showing that during the recession, people with some post-secondary education fared much better than those with only a high school diploma.

"Even a community college certificate is going to give you an advantage," he said. "It's because we're in a knowledge economy."

But officials at CBC and the state level acknowledged that increasing tuition costs are becoming an issue and are working to help alleviate it.

Money for K-12 education is protected from budget cuts, partially because of the Washington Supreme Court's order to the state to fully fund it per the state constitution.

But higher education budgets don't have the same safeguards, and the state has trimmed $1.4 billion from higher education since 2009, according to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. In exchange, lawmakers have told the universities and colleges they could raise tuition to make up the difference, The Associated Press reported.

Despite additional money the Legislature has put into the state need grant program, more than 30,000 students were eligible for a state grant this fall but didn't get one because there's not enough money to go around, said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. About 74,000 students did get a state need grant, The Associated Press reported.

Schools are looking at ways to help cut costs for students, such as a textbook rental program at Bellevue College. Another way is to increase scholarship offerings, a tactic the CBC Foundation has pursued.

The foundation will award a record 364 scholarships worth $528,786 to students Friday morning at the Pasco Red Lion during a reception. That includes 38 $2,000 scholarships to each of the school's second-year nursing students.

Foundation CEO Bob Rosselli told the Herald the foundation has typically sought to cover 50 percent of tuition costs for students who qualified for aid, which used to be about $1,500. While some scholarships have set values because of donor specifications, the foundation has worked to increase the average scholarship cost to $2,000 to help with rising tuition rates.

The generosity of the community has helped with those efforts and the Foundation is giving out more than $100,000 more than it did last year. But there's also about 150 more people asking for help.

"It's a reflection of increased population but also increased need," Rosselli said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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