... if the government didn't step in with easy-to-get-no-qualification loans.
The exorbitant cost of higher education has been, arguably, increased by the intervention of the federal government. While the idea of a student loan backed co-signed by the government, as a way to allow "under-privileged" kids to attend universities, seems good in theory the unfortunate reality is that it has diminished competition and caused the price of tuition to rise exponentially faster than the rate of inflation... essentially it has done what most government intervention does -- created a cartel. (Read this CATO article here if you're interested)
Well local community colleges are, perhaps, offering that competition in the face of an economic down turn. The New York Times ran an article this morning about associate-degree institutions beginning to offer 4-year course and actually grant a bachelors degree in fields like nursing, public safety and education (to name a few). These programs are drawing students who, for financial reasons (including not wanting to incur enormous debt for the next 15-29 years), were turned off by the idea of going to a traditional 4-year institution. Personally, I believe this is a great catalyst to get students, parents, teacher and maybe even university administrators to consider the cost of universities again. While "elite" schools like Columbia probably won't take this too seriously, hopefully other universities will and competition can do what it always does: lower prices and increase quality.