Double Fees Buy Spot on College’s Fast Track

Bristol Community College is teaming up with a for-profit education company to offer classes in popular allied health programs, a first-of-its-kind partnership that will allow students to bypass waiting lists — provided they pay double the tuition.

The initiative, which the college will offer with The Princeton Review at its New Bedford campus beginning next fall for some programs, has stirred criticism among some educators, who say providing a fast-track education only to students who can afford to pay more than $8,000 a year runs counter to the mission of the state’s community colleges: a commitment to access and equity for all.

“It’s just unfair,’’ said Joe LeBlanc, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council. “I would be quite upset if a student who could pay two times as much jumped to the head of the line to take Bristol Community College classes. Public education, in my mind, means you’re keeping your costs as low as you possibly can. We serve everyone, and in particular, the have-nots.’’

But college officials say the partnership is a creative way for the school to meet burgeoning demand to train health care workers. Enrollment in Massachusetts community colleges has jumped 10 percent in the past year, the largest increase in recent years. And education officials expect similar collaborations on other public campuses in Massachusetts and around the country in coming years.

“In an age of scarce resources, we’re just not going to get money from our state to expand our enrollments,’’ said John Sbrega, president of Bristol Community College. “Such public-private partnerships are the wave of the future.’’

The new courses offered under the partnership — in nursing, occupational therapy, phlebotomy, massage therapy, health care information, and health science — will primarily be taught online by Bristol adjunct faculty, and also include some face-to-face instruction for labs and clinics. Students will be able to earn two-year degrees as well as one-year certificates.

As part of the deal with Bristol, The Princeton Review will invest $2 million in the project, which includes a new college facility in downtown New Bedford that will be outfitted with state-of-the-art science labs, computers, offices, and a health clinic to offer faculty-supervised services to the community. The company will also pay for the development of curriculum and technology required for online learning.

The partnership will allow the college to add a couple dozen faculty members to its allied health programs and expand the number of students it can serve, college officials said.
Bristol officials estimate that tuition and fees for the programs will be about $8,500 a year, an amount Bristol says it needs to charge to cover the higher costs and repay The Princeton Review’s initial investment.

A full-time student studying nursing, for example, now pays half that amount — if he or she can get in. The college currently accepts only 72 nursing students a year out of a pool of about 1,000 applicants because of limited instructors and space. The rest land on a wait list. Now those students may choose to pay the additional money for a spot in the new program.

College officials say the unusual arrangement will not affect Bristol’s tax-exempt status because state funds will not be used and all profits will be returned to The Princeton Review. They were unable to specify how tuition proceeds would be divided because the agreement will not be finalized until May 1.

Princeton Review representatives say Bristol will serve as a test case over the next two years, and the company eventually plans to replicate the model around the country. It has already spoken to nearly 15 community colleges in half a dozen states, said Gerry Kavanaugh, vice president for the company’s community college initiative.

Some Bristol faculty bristle at the notion of two-tiered tuition.

“I don’t know how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can justify letting some students pay more for the exact same degree,’’ said Diana Yohe, who teaches office administration. “Are we in the for-profit business as opposed to being a public institution that gives equal access to our students?’’

College officials say that with online classes, students will be able to earn a degree and enter the working world faster.

“If people want a placement and will pay more, I don’t see why that shouldn’t happen,’’ said Marie Marshall, director of the nursing program. “The work could pay them back in spades.’’

Richard Freeland, state commissioner of higher education, defends such partnerships, which have become a source of research funds for universities.

“This is an opportunity to do something exciting and important that would not otherwise be possible,’’ said Freeland, adding that the state has carefully reviewed the legal and financial ramifications of the arrangement. “There is a need for the same kind of relationship in other community colleges, so we’re going to see more of it.’’

In California, another for-profit company, Kaplan University, has signed an agreement with the community college system to deliver general education courses online, said Peter Smith, Kaplan’s senior vice president for academic strategy and the former president of the Community College of Vermont.

Sbrega said the Bristol program, first reported in the online publication Inside Higher Ed, will strengthen the economy in Southeastern Massachusetts, which is struggling with high unemployment and a shortage of health care workers. The new nursing program expects to accept students in three years but has already drawn interest from prospective students.

Among them is Maryjane Gebar, a 31-year-old New Bedford resident who has not found a steady job since graduating from a different college in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in business and an associate’s in criminal justice and paralegal studies. She applied to three public nursing programs, including Bristol’s, and sees paying the extra money to enroll in the new program as a worthy investment.

“Even though it’s more money, in the end it pays off, because once you have the education, the jobs are there,’’ she said.


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