Community colleges are a way to cut college costs

A huge number of college students finish their studies at public universities in Iowa shouldering an unconscionable amount of student debt.

There is an alternative, for those who choose it.

There are several ways to achieve a bachelor’s degree from a public university, if that’s the goal. One is to enroll at a Regents university in Iowa (U of Iowa, Iowa State or Northern Iowa) as a freshman and attend for four years, or however long it takes.

Another is to enroll as a freshman at a private college or university, and then transfer to a Regents university after completing one or more years of study.

Both of those options will prove pretty costly, unless generous grants or scholarships are in the mix.

A third option would slash the cost considerably.

That would be to enroll at an Iowa community college for the first two years of study, earn an associate’s degree, then transfer to a Regents university for the junior and senior years.

The reason? Academic courses at community colleges, including board and room, cost an average of about $375 per credit hour. Living at home and attending a community college is even cheaper. At a Regents university, the same courses and fees cost about $500 per credit hour.

A year of academic study usually equates to 30 credit hours or so. Do the math, and you see that two years at a community college are way cheaper than at a public university in Iowa.

Community colleges maintain that students who take two years there, then transfer to a public university for their final two years, do at least as well academically at the public university as students who spend all four years there.

That data, of course, is crucial to the validity of the transfer route as a viable academic option. And not every community college would be an appropriate fit for any given student.

Each community college is governed by its own board, and the rigor of classes at each one varies depending on curriculum emphasis, quality of faculty and infrastructure, and many other factors.

So maybe the dependability of academics at community colleges would benefit from the creation of a single board, similar to that of the Board of Regents, to govern all 15 Iowa community colleges.

That would be a huge change to the structure of higher education in Iowa, of course, and the pushback would be enormous. But the probable benefit to students warrants a good look at that idea.

A number of states today are putting considerable funds into their community colleges, and students there are responding. In Iowa, the state supports the Regents institutions by $300 to $500 per credit hour. Community colleges receive state funding of about $100 per credit hour.

Iowa would do well to encourage young people to consider reducing their potential student debt by taking a couple of academic years at an Iowa community college, and the state government should re-examine its formula for funding public higher education.

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