03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Have We Hit The College Price Ceiling?

A new PEW Research Center study is full of firsts: More students in college than ever before, more students completing high school, fewer high-school dropouts, more boys staying in school, more Hispanic high-school graduates and fewer dropouts, even if their college enrollment rate is flat. The black student population is not part of the good news, with high-school dropout rates up and college enrollment down, but I look to educators and policymakers to figure that one out. The only part of this where I have expertise is the bi-annual bills.

And here's a first you can feel in your checkbook: The biggest increase in enrollment is at two-year community colleges. Enrollment at four-year public and private colleges is pretty static. Cost may be starting, slowly, to trump prestige - because clearly some families are looking at the price tag of name-brand schools and deciding to shop at the educational equivalent of Target, instead, at least for the first two years.

The economy is the subtext of the whole scenario, when you get right to it: People tend to hide out in school when the economy's bad, for two reasons: It's next to impossible to find work, and this way they can pick up a degree that might enhance their employability, should the job market ever improve. Might as well stay in school, the thinking goes, because there's nothing much out there in the real world.

That's a big part of the reason that college numbers are up overall. But up more at two-year schools than at four-year schools? Yes, these schools have traditionally offered motivated kids with less than Ivy League records a chance to get their acts together so they can transfer for junior and senior year. And yes, they've been an economical alternative for families for whom $10,000 or $20,000 per kid per year is like sprinting up Mt. Everest carrying a large backpack with no supplemental oxygen; that is, impossible.

But the jump in numbers means that people who didn't have community college on their aspirational radar screens do, now, and unless I missed the announcement, it's not because there's a traveling band of Nobel laureates lecturing at two-year schools nationwide.

To quote President Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid."

Or smart, finally. As a nation, we rarely buy anything at full price anymore, not clothing, not food, not the once-premium-priced Prius, not houses, certainly. And yet we have continued to spend on college, even though you never see a ten percent off sign at a college admissions open house; never the equivalent of free shipping, or even a get-the-tenth-meal free volume discount card. Fees don't budge - but we keep paying them because in a recession a degree from an impressive school feels like a Monopoly "get out of jail free" card.

It seems that some of us, though, have figured out that a student can go to a community college and then transfer to a big-name school. Same prestigious diploma, same aura, and depending on whether the school is public or private, at either a large or a jumbo extra-large savings.

The fun question, of course, is what this will do to supply and demand: If more students take the two-year option, will four-year schools finally have to lower their prices?

The not-fun question is whether the junior-year transfer process will become the new high-stress experience, as all those community college grads try to muscle their way into four-year schools, but I like the fun question more. I like the idea that at long last a college education is going to end up alongside GM's cars and Italian leather purses and all the houses on my block: Discounted.

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