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 College Affordability and Transparency Lists Released 

6/15/2012

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has just made available college affordability and transparency lists that were mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. These lists are derived from more comprehensive data about college tuitions and other information that ED provides through its College Navigator website. The intent in providing the lists is to provide greater transparency that will allow students and parents to “comparison shop” to their benefit.

In speaking to the media yesterday about the data, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “community colleges are the backbone of America’s higher education system,” while also noting their “social mission.” Under Secretary Martha Kanter also made positive comments about our institutions.

That said, these lists are of lesser rather than greater importance to potential community college students and other interested parties. Among other reasons, most people do not choose between different community colleges, certainly not on the basis of tuition increases in previous years, which is largely beside the point. In responding to any questions that campuses might receive about these lists, the following points may prove helpful.

General Comments About College Affordability and Transparency Lists

  • The impetus for the congressional mandate that these lists be created was almost exclusively high levels of public concern about the tuitions of 4-year and for-profit colleges. Consequently, these lists do not reflect the unique nature of community colleges and their student populations.
  • Potential college students aren't focused on recent trends in tuition; they simply want to know what a college costs and what student aid is available to help them meet those costs.
  • The 2-year window that the list is based on is too narrow to accurately reflect a college's trends.

Community College Tuitions

  • Tuitions are highly correlated with levels of state and local funding—when this support declines, colleges often are left with no recourse but to raise tuition as a last resort. This point is becoming more broadly understood by the media, policymakers, and consumers of higher education.
  • In most cases, community college students do not engage in elaborate “comparison shopping” between institutions of higher education; they simply choose to go to their local community college because it meets their needs. As a result, lists comparing institutions have little relevance. Information about specific program outcomes, while sometimes difficult to obtain, is far more important.
  • The bottom line is that community colleges are by far the least expensive institutions of higher education. As a sector of higher education, community colleges have the lowest tuitions by far—$2,963 on average in fall 2011, according to the College Board.

General Comments About Net Price Watch List

  • “Net price” is a concept most relevant to residential students who pay institutional room and board charges, which represents only a very small fraction of community college students.
  • Net price is strongly affected by the availability of student aid funds, which, other than institutional aid, is completely beyond the control of the institution.
  • Net price is strongly affected by the cost of living in various areas, which can skew the results.

Publication of the lists may generate questions from college constituencies and the news media. AACC provides this information to give you context in responding to possible questions.

For further information, contact David Baime (dbaime@aacc.nche.edu), Vice President for Government Relations and Research, or Chris Mullin (cmullin@aacc.nche.edu), Program Director for Policy Analysis.

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