Community Colleges and the Opportunity Society

Increase in undergraduate, in-state tuition & fees between 2015-16 academic year and 2019-20 academic year. Data source: SCHEV

by James A. Bacon

What does it take to create an Opportunity Society? One critical element is providing Virginians with the skills they need to be employable in the occupations of the future. Nearly three out of five jobs created between now and 2026 will be “middle skill” jobs requiring community- or career-college training, not a four-year college degree. A majority of Virginians, therefore, will look to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for their ticket to the middle class.

Virginia’s community college system doesn’t get its due. The VCCS board is acutely aware of the affordability issue, and it has made it a priority to limit increases in tuition and fees. I thought it would be interesting to contrast the VCCS’s success in that regard to the runaway tuition-and-fees increases at Virginia’s public four-year residential colleges. I took the latest data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Tuition and Fees database to compare increases between the 2015-16 academic year and the current 2019-20 academic year.

You can see from the chart above that the community colleges have done a far superior job of keeping charges under control. Community colleges on average increased T&F only 8.1% over the four-year period compared to a range for the four-years of 10.1% for Virginia State University to 22% for the College of William & Mary. (Richard Bland, a two-year residential college is an extreme outlier.)

What accounts for the difference?

I would argue that the VCCS board has maintained a tight focus on its core educational mission of preparing students for those middle-skill occupations at an affordable cost. The community colleges have not engaged in mission creep. They have not leaped onto the hamster wheel of competing with other institutions for prestige and influence. They do not engage in the redistribution of income, inflating tuition for some to provide scholarships for others. They don’t create new bureaucracies to promote diversity — their student bodies are diverse to begin with. They are not investing in building expensive R&D programs. They are not vying for superstar faculty members who teach less and demand higher compensation. They aren’t continually building and upgrading their facilities — none, for example, are spending $10 million to renovate the president’s house.

(Caveat No. 1: The SCHEV figures above show the sticker price for attending Virginia’s public colleges and universities. All institutions make financial aid available, so the actual price paid may vary, depending upon the student’s family income. Caveat No. 2: I have not adjusted for changes in state support for each institution, which also varies by institution year to year.)

Community colleges remain affordable. Even without financial aid, a two-year degree will cost only $9,240 on average. That’s a pretty cheap ticket into a middle-class occupation.

The contrast between community colleges and the four-year colleges provides a tangible measure of how the public four-years have sacrificed the goal of an affordable education to the interest of building academic empires and boosting institutional prestige.

Seen in this light, while community colleges are contributors to the Opportunity Society, the public four-years are enemies of the Opportunity Society. By making access to higher ed so expensive, they are a significant cause of socioeconomic and racial inequity in Virginia. While championing “progressive” political causes and giving lip service to diversity, the most prestigious of the public four-years are run for the benefit of their administrative and faculty elites. Higher-ed is not the rule of the so-called 1%, the richest people in America, but it is the rule of the 2%, the extremely privileged and well-to-do. Considering the treatment of graduate students and adjunct faculty, public higher-ed is one of the most hierarchical and exploitative industries in the country.

In a recent post I explored James V. Koch’s ideas for reforming governance of Virginia’s public four-years. He lays much of the problem at the feet of complacent and ill-informed board members who are captured by wily college/university presidents. Perhaps Virginia should look to its community college State Board as a model.

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20 responses to “Community Colleges and the Opportunity Society”

  1. Anonymous3444 Avatar

    I spent twenty years at UVa, where I got more Jefferson crammed down my throat than I ever dreamt of. (I’m a great admirer of the man, actually, but bastante already!) As far as I’m concerned, what Jefferson wanted for the University of Virginia is almost exactly what VCCS does every day (in contrast to UVa, which seems to me to have very little to do today with Jefferson’s vision).

  2. djrippert Avatar

    Striking difference between William & Mary and the other four year colleges and universities. I never knew poetry cost so much to teach.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      William and Mary uses a tuition system that differs from other schools in the state. When a student is accepted, the school guarantees that his/her tuition will not increase over the four-year period. Thus, the college factors in an estimate of its increase in costs up front. That is probably why its increases look high in comparison to those for other schools.

      This approach allows parents to budget better for their kids’ college costs. Of course, a cynic would point out that it also avoids having parents complaining about increased tuition during the time their kids are in school.

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        William and Mary shamelessly and openly over charges. As a grad and donor, I’m embarrassed by it. I’m a grad and I tell people, unless you are rich consider the alternatives.

        1. I think this has been a case of William & Mary trying to keep up with the big boys in U.S. News. U.S. News uses financial resources as a significant input, and financial resources are highly correlated with 1) having a medical school (which probably has almost no benefit to undergraduate education) 2) doing lots of research (which may be detrimental to undergraduate education) and 3) being private. W&M doesn’t have 1 or 2, so they are trying to charge more and use the additional amount to act more like a private do things with the additional money like increase financial aid and faculty pay. I wonder how much it has increased administration.

          To Steve’s point, though, if you are a good student in Virginia from a relatively poor family, W&M and UVA will probably be your most affordable option. They do the most redistribution. I think Jim did a post on this not long ago.

          If you are relatively well to do and want to keep more of your money, schools like VT and JMU have lower sticker prices and do less redistribution.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This is one of the most accurate and informative summary posts that you’ve written Jim on the state of higher education in Va. There is much to explore and elaborate on here.

  4. I’ve seen a number of comments on this board that Virginia’s longer term success may be more dependent on the community college system than the 4 year system, which gets more attention here (particularly UVA). There is probably some merit in that in that a set of the 4 year schools (UVA, VT, JMU, W&M) are arguably more in the business of taking upper middle income students and producing upper middle income graduates. There isn’t much dynamism or opportunity production in that.

    But there has to be some cause for concern for the VCCS. Enrollment has declined every year since 2011, from 197K to 162K, an 18% drop during a period when the population has grown 8.5%.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      IZZO says above – “There is probably some merit in that in that a set of the 4 year schools (UVA, VT, JMU, W&M) are arguably more in the business of taking upper middle income students and producing upper middle income graduates. There isn’t much dynamism or opportunity production in that.”

      Izzo posts here an excellent and original comment, one that is pregnant with meaning that devalues the services these elite universities perform for us. For example, the fact is that outstanding students will typically succeed after college, no matter what college or university they attend. In regard to this important and critical fact that we need to better appreciate, see my earlier post here on Bacon’s Rebellion found at:

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Indeed, there is an excellent argument to be made that the tenured faculty and Administrators at elite universities benefit far more from their elite students than elites students benefit from their their faculty and administrators, even when the absurd costs of attending these corrupted institutions are not factored in.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Interesting obituary in WaPo (yes, that lying libral rag):

    ” Richard Ernst, who led Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years, dies at 86″


    Dr. Ernst joined Northern Virginia Community College (sometimes called NOVA) in 1968, four years after it was founded. The school had just opened the doors of its first campus, in Annandale, after being housed in an old warehouse at Baileys Crossroads. About 4,000 students were enrolled.

    About 65,000 students were enrolled in classes for academic credit, making NOVA the second-largest community college in the country, after Miami Dade College in Florida — a rank it still holds. (at the time of the 1998 interview with him)

    During robust economic times, enrollment often fell as would-be students found full-time jobs. When the economy contracted, NOVA and other community colleges gained students hoping to obtain more marketable skills.

    In 1985, during a booming national economy, NOVA’s enrollment dropped by 8 percent, causing Dr. Ernst to lay off 55 faculty members.

    Community college is not an either/or proposition for 4 year institutions. On the contrary, they can be essentially launching pads

    And once again, they are a viable low cost way to get an education, a marketable job – a middle class job and yet the myth about 4 yr College persists – and one has to attribute at least some of it to financial illiteracy – even among middle class folks.

  6. “Myth about 4 year college”

    4 year college graduates earn about 43% more than two year college graduates. That isn’t insignificant.

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    First of all, I want to say that I think the community colleges play a valuable role in our educational system. They provide low-cost training and education to many sectors of our society–including adult learners who are interested in taking a course just for the enjoyment of it.

    That being said, I think the comparison here of the costs of community colleges and the four-year institutions is unfair. It is the classic comparison of apples and oranges. Let’s look at Don’s arguments contrasting the cost increases:
    1. No mission creep for community colleges. That is not exactly accurate. During the last decade or so, more and more emphasis has been put on the role of community colleges acting as feeders for the four-year schools. Most now have agreements with one or more college or university to take any of their students who have a B (?) average after two years. (Academic role in addition to the traditional training in “middle level” skills.)
    2. Not competing with each other—Because the community colleges are not residential facilities, the vast majority of their students come from the immediate area. (I think the original goal was to locate a community college within 50 miles of any Virginia resident.) It would not make any sense for a community college to compete for students from other parts of the state.
    3. No new bureaucracies to promote diversity—OK, you got me there. However, the costs of those bureaucracies are a very small percentage of a college or university’s budget.
    4. Not investing in building expensive R&D programs—Of course, they are not. A R&D program is not part of the mission of a two-year higher ed program. Would you have Tech and UVa. abandon their R&D programs?
    5. Not vying for superstar faculty—Again, of course not. Such faculty have no role in a two-year program. (More of the apples and oranges analogy.)
    6. Aren’t continually building and upgrading their facilities—You would be surprised at the level of construction that has gone on at community colleges in this decade. Almost every community college has had at least one major capital project authorized, and this for a system that, as Izzo pointed out, has been losing students for the last eight years. Much of the building at four-year colleges has been residential facilities, which are not needed at community colleges.

    In summary, community colleges have a different role and a different target student population than four-year institutions. Accordingly, comparing their costs is misleading, if those differences are not taken into account.

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) – A renovation project at the University of Virginia is underway to protect a historic building.

    The Carr’s Hill House, home of UVA’s president, is about to undergo an overhaul. Contractors are renovating most of the 100-year-old building from the inside-out to bring it up to modern standards.

    Some of the upgrades include a new roof, new mechanical systems, and restoration of some of the original features in the house.

    The renovation project of Carr’s Hill will cost more than $10 million.”

    ONLY $10,000,000.00+++ to renovate the UVA president’s house. Why so cheap, for such a great man!!!!!!!

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I got a better idea than Virginia taxpayers shelling out $10,000,000.00 + to renovate the house the UVA President lives in. Just sent the Great Man back to Harvard where he came from and where he now belongs, before he ruins UVA like he did Harvard.

      For sure proof of the wisdom of this solution:

      “At Harvard, there was once a University. Now that once noble campus has become a luxury asylum for the terminally feeble-minded. Walter Willett, one of the inmates (in his sadly incurable delusion he calls himself “Professor of Nutrition”), has gibbered to a well-meaning visitor from Business Insider that “eating a diet that’s especially high in red meat will be undermining the sustainability of the climate.”

      Farewell, then, to the Roast Beef of Old England. So keen are we in the Old Country on our Sunday roast (cooked rare and sliced thickish) that the French call us les rosbifs. But the “Professor” (for we must humor him by letting him think he is qualified to talk about nutrition) wants to put a stop to all that.

      As strikingly ignorant of all but the IPCC Party Line as others in that hopeless hospice for hapless halfwits, he overlooks the fact that the great plains of what is now the United States of America were once teeming with millions upon millions of eructating, halating ruminants. Notwithstanding agriculture, there are far fewer ruminants now than there were then.

      The “Professor” drools on: “It’s bad for the person eating it, but also really bad for our children and our grandchildren, so that’s something I think we should totally, strongly advise against. It’s — in fact — irresponsible.”

      It may be that the “Professor” – look how fetchingly he adjusts his tinfoil hat to a rakish angle – does not accept the theory of evolution. If, however, that theory is correct, the Earth is somewhat older than the 6000 years derived by the amiably barmy Bishop Ussher counting the generations since Abraham.

      Agriculture as we now understand it only became widespread in the past 10,000 years. Before that, for perhaps two million years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate meat and fish and not a lot else – perhaps a little fruit and a few nuts now and then, but only in season.

      If eating all that saturated fat was bad for them, how on Earth were they fertile enough to breed generation after generation across the rolling millennia, leading eventually to us?

      Let me give the “Professor” a brief lecture in nutrition …”

      For more on UVA trying to outdo Harvard, see

      Read it, and then tell UVA’s Board of Visitors, and its self absorbed president, to stop stealing that $10,000,000.00 from Virginia Taxpayers to renovate their CEO’s house, after they’ve already stolen $60,000,000.00 to renovate their own Board of Visitors Board Room complete with its underground tunnel for VIPs and its underground cuisine designer kitchen and it fancy chef to serve them all fancy food in TJ’s Rotunda. It is long past time to throw these arrogant thieves out of UVA.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Currently, the total cost to renovate the Rotunda at UVa. has been $51.2 million. Of that amount, $18.5 million was from UVa. Foundation funds (gifts from alumni and others). As for the $10 million for Carr’s Hill House, the president’s residence, news reports say only that the funding came from “institution” sources. If there were any taxpayer-related funding (general fund, tuition and fees, etc.), i.e. public money, involved, the university would have been required to get General Assembly approval and to establish a formal capital project on the books of the Commonwealth. That has not occurred, therefore it appears that taxpayer funds are not being used to renovate the president’s residence. For what it is worth, I am always amazed at how expensive these projects are ($10 million seems like a lot of money to me) and, at least, the house is not the private property of the current president, but belongs to the university.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          “Currently, the total cost to renovate the Rotunda at UVa. has been $51.2 million.”

          Not correct, Dick. It was orginally estimated to cost $51 million (far far too high to begin with), but later was reported to have cost overruns bringing total to roughly $60 million. It should have cost a small faction of $60 million. As I recall UVA Rotunda was restored in mid 1970s for a small faction of that $60 million, and naturally so as the Rotunda is small building, only 36,000 square feet, before they added 6,000 new square feet underground for kitchen in last renovation under Teresa Sullivan that cost more than the $59 million recently spent on restoring the US National Capital Dome in DC that is four times the size of UVA’s Rotunda. I restored two sizable National Landmark commercial buildings that are now on National Register, one bigger than the Rotunda, and ten stories high. The monies spent by UVA on these two projects are absurd. I strongly suspect they paid themselves (professors) for much of the consulting work to achieve these outrageous prices.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            I probably was not clear in my comment. The $51.2 million is the expenditure to date. (That is the amount showing in the state’s accounting system. There my be some additional expenses before the project is closed. I am not qualified to comment on why it is costing this amount. Now that I think about, there could have been some additional costs that were paid for out of donations and treated as a separate project. Any public funds must be recorded on the state’s books.

          2. UVA has to try to keep up with the big boys. When Yale built its two most recent residential colleges, they cost over $500M, which is about $650K per bed.

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    For one solid minute, consider and try to explain these indisputable facts and events that are going simultaneously:

    1 – UVA’s president declares that his vision for UVA’s future is that the institution will not only be “Great, but will be Good”, and

    2- America’s upper middle and middle class, and its lower middle class (if white) assume massive personal debt, mortgaging their families and students future, piled on parents and their children to send their kids to a four year college (including UVA), if they get accepted against all odds, and

    3/ most all four year colleges in America refuse to allow others to gauge the educational results of attending four or more years of college, whether the institution be elite or not, despite reliable reports that many students attending this schools learn little or nothing, and

    4/ meanwhile four year college tuition and fee costs go through the roof, year after year for decades, and,

    5/ UVA’s Board of Visitors and UVA’s president vote for, pass, and spend not less than $10,000,000.00 dollars to “renovate” the home that the UVA’s president lives in,

    6) No one, not anyone in a position of power or responsibility in the entire state of Virginia, raises his or her voice in opposition, or even questions, this $10,000, 000.00 expenditure, or even asks for an accounting for how and why that $10,000,000,00 is being spent to renovate the house of the UVA president.

    Imagine all of this, and ask yourself why?

  10. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    In my years at VT I’ve worked with very few “elite” students. Many are first generation college students from homes of modest means. Most either work to help pay their expenses or are scholarship athletes who spend hours practicing. Admittedly, that is not true for most of the university, but it is in my program.

    I’m seeing a lot of high school students getting the 2 year community college degree simultaneously with their high school diploma. They arrive here wanting to get their 4 year college experience. Honestly, most need the 4 years to find what they really want to do with their lives and mature. We’re working too hard to get those high school students early and they aren’t using the community college program to reduce their years at the 4 year school. As college bound students, they were lured into a program that isn’t what they really want. They are especially disadvantaged by this when they arrive here to discover that the major they thought they wanted isn’t for them – usually with shocking, for them, low grades. If they had to leave in 2 years, they’d be in a heap of trouble. Most of my students are internal transfers who never heard of our program in high school. We’ve not found good ways to get that info to high schools.

    There are many issues to consider. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

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