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The latest tuition hike planned at Harford Community College is weak public policy as it comes on the heels of another round of tuition increases that will end up increasing the cost of one credit hour from $77 five years ago to $116 when the latest anticipated $12 increase takes effect.

The problem isn't so much that the tuition increases at Harford Community College make the school something other than a bargain compared to other colleges.

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When HCC enacted the $104 per credit rate for in-county students, the per credit charge at four-year institutions in the region was substantially more, ranging from $218 at Morgan State University to $260 at Towson University to $894 at Johns Hopkins.

Even at the anticipated $116, Harford Community College remains a bargain compared to the per credit costs at four-year institutions. That's a staggering 50 percent increase over five years, and the anticipated hike will, however, increase the per credit cost charged to in-county students at Harford Community College beyond the in-county rate of $113 per credit hour charged to students in the Community College of Baltimore County system.

Two problems are at play in this issue. One is that comparing the per credit costs of community colleges to those advertised by four institutions doesn't reflect reality. While community college tuition, because it is a relative bargain, is generally a full amount charge, many four-year institutions offer a range of breaks, incentives and scholarships, and rather loudly proclaim that somewhere between many and most students don't pay the full book rate. As the cost per credit hour at Harford Community College creeps up, the four-year college fudge factor on tuition makes the community college option appear that much less appealing.

The second problem relates more centrally to the mission of community colleges, which is to provide access to higher education for people who may not otherwise be able to afford it. That $116 per credit hour is a relative bargain compared to Towson or Morgan means nothing to someone from a family of modest means, or a family that has been ravaged by some sort of social ill.

The community college system should be looking to set its tuition at levels so people of modest means and weak family support networks are able to improve their chances for being successful in life.

The more community colleges compare themselves to four-year institutions when it comes to pricing, the more people at the low end of the economic ladder will be priced out of a higher education.

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