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Graduating from a community college – traditionally the only affordable avenue available for underprivileged students seeking higher education – is increasingly becoming out of reach for many students because of rising tuition, according to a new study.

The findings by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a San Jose-based nonprofit, come as the state has increased the community college enrollment fee from $26 to $36 per unit effective this fall semester.

“Yes, community college is getting harder and harder to afford,” said Kathy Blackwood, chief financial officer for the San Mateo County Community College District, adding that the fee could go up to $46 per unit in the spring if the projected revenues in the new state budget don’t materialize.

The study released Thursday indicated the cost of attending a two-year or four-year public institution in the country has outpaced family earning over the past decade – putting up a significant barrier to achieving a bachelor’s degree for many students, especially those from underserved communities.

In California, the study showed, the cost of going to community college increased 77 percent, while median family income rose 5 percent, between 1999 and 2009. Tuition for four-year colleges and universities went up 89 percent during that span.

“California is not doing well in getting students to a baccalaureate degree,” said Patrick Callan, the center’s president.

The rising higher-education costs, coupled with decreasing classroom space triggered by the state’s fiscal problems, keep many low-income community college students from graduating or transferring to a university, Callan said. But it’s the low-income or minority students who are more likely than their wealthy or white counterpart to enroll in community college, the study said. Nationwide, 44 percent of low-income students in higher education attend community colleges right after high school.

The affordability issue is especially hurting states with high community college participation, the study added. California is one of those states, with 63 percent of its higher-education enrollment in the 2007-08 school year found in community colleges.

Among its recommendations, the study encouraged efforts to improve the transfer process for community college students. California is making progress in that regard by creating a program that guarantees junior status to those transferring to the state university system, the study said.

Every state also should stabilize rates of fee or tuition increases – taking family income into account – and increase financial aid, the study said.

Local college districts are already doing their part in trying to keep their schools as affordable as possible.

“We do a lot of outreach in an attempt to provide financial aid to all eligible students,” Blackwood said. “In addition, the cost of textbooks is a big factor. We have been increasing our textbook-rental program significantly over the last several years. This allows a student to rent a textbook for 25 percent of the cost of buying a new one.”

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District has a similar textbook program, said spokeswoman Becky Bartindale. “Even with significant cutbacks in state funding, the district works hard to help reduce costs for students and support them in their efforts to complete college,” Bartindale said.

The Foothill-De Anza Foundation raises money for dozens of scholarships that help the district’s students, she added.

Even with the fee increase and other costs totaling about $1,000 a semester, College of San Mateo student Jerome Seegmiller finds community college still affordable. “It’s pretty reasonable compared to the state universities and University of California system,” said Seegmiller, 19.