The Step-Down Phenomenon: Community Colleges

By all accounts, community colleges are having a banner year. This article reports on 30 percent increases in applications to some community colleges and notes that community colleges are far more affordable than four-year public universities or private schools. It is obvious that, in these recessionary times, many would-be students simply can’t afford to go away to a traditional four-year college and pay the significantly higher tuition costs for that kind of school. But, they still value and need a college education, so they have “stepped down” to community colleges.

A building on the Columbus State campus

A building on the Columbus State campus

In Columbus, the primary beneficiary of this trend is Columbus State Community College, which has more than 24,000 students and is the largest community college in Ohio. The school recently announced an 18 percent increase in its summer quarter enrollment, which follows significant increases in its spring, winter, and fall quarter enrollments. To all appearances, Columbus State offers a quality education for a reasonable price, and the growth of that institution has been good for the city. Columbus State is located in downtown Columbus and it has helped to make the Discovery District of downtown a much more interesting place.

I think the willingness of people to look at community colleges as a viable alternative to four-year public and private colleges may be a good thing for other reasons, too. It would be wonderful if the elite colleges and universities in America realized that there is not endless elasticity of demand for degrees from those schools, and that the American educational consumer will take cost into account in deciding where to attend college. For years, our colleges and universities imposed rote 5% annual tuition increases and still managed to set application records, but perhaps this recession will make them hesitate before they implement the next tuition hike. A little price competition and attention to the law of supply and demand in the higher education realm would be a very good thing.

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