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Bargain for learning [Editorial]

Harford Community College appears to be trending in the right direction in terms of its finances, especially relative to the vital service the institution provides.

For nearly a decade, college officials acknowledge, the school has failed to balance its annual budgets based on its primary revenue sources (tuition and student fees as well as allocations from the state and county governments). Instead, it has covered shortfalls with unspent reserves from years when the financial realities were brighter.

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In the spending year that ended June 30, the college was expected to end up drawing $2.4 million from that fund, but preliminary reviews of the books indicate the amount drawn from savings could end up in a range as low $250,000.

Richard Norling, vice chairman of the college board of trustees, said of the situation: "That is a credit to everybody on campus who clearly watched what they were doing, watched the cost of what they were doing and managed to get us in a decent financial situation."

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Indeed, college staff members are to be credited with coming in under budget.

A few other factors, however, are worthy of consideration. The amount of the budget for the just ended fiscal year was $48.1 million and the projected shortfall of $2.4 million constituted just shy of 5 percent of the total. It's hardly chump change, but it isn't a massive amount, relatively speaking, so it wasn't unreasonable to ask college managers to do their best to save where appropriate, and that tactic seems to have worked this year. There's also the matter of the college being financially better poised in recent years as a series of tuition increases have been enacted. The tuition increases, it's worth noting, have coincided with unfortunate decreases in funding levels from government sources because of an extended national economic downturn

To a degree, it was reasonable for the college to dip into reserves to deal with the impact of economic factors beyond the control of families and the governments of the state and county.

Throughout all this, it remains important to keep the goal of the community college system in mind: making higher education affordable for families that would otherwise not be able to pay for what increasingly in our society is an educational necessity.

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Unfortunately, the trend in higher education that has resulted in four-year institutions charging what they think people are willing to pay rather than what they need to run a school has seeped into the community college mindset. This became evident as recent tuition increases were enacted with the accompanying justification that, relative to what was being charged at four-year institutions, community college tuition is a bargain.

Certainly this is true, but it belies the reality that a key mission of the community college is to provide a foundational college education at a bargain price. When community college costs increase to what is charged at other institutions, the community college system's value to society is, at best, negligible.

Fortunately at Harford Community College, the finances and the mission appear to be reconciled, or nearly so. The school's trustees and administration, however, need to make sure the institution entrusted to them continues to provide that bargain entre into the world of higher education.

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