Invest more in community colleges

Community colleges are vastly under-resourced and, as a result, largely cannot fulfill their promise to serve as engines of social mobility, according to a new report from the Century Foundation.

The report blames policymakers for “systematically shortchanging community colleges” by providing them with significantly less funding than four-year institutions, despite serving a population with significantly greater needs. Community colleges spend $14,000 a year per full-time student, compared to $72,000 by private research universities and $40,000 by public research institutions.

That disparity becomes even starker when considering that 53 percent of community college students come from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution, the report says.

According to the Century Foundation, the lack of sufficient funding is resulting in disappointing outcomes. Only 38 percent of students entering community college complete a degree or certificate within six years. And while 81 percent of students say they want to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, only 15 percent actually do so.

“America’s community colleges – and the 9 million students they serve – are facing a crisis,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and executive director of its Working Group on Community College Financial Resources.

Social mobility

“We are starving these schools of the funding they need, asking them to do increasingly more with increasingly less and robbing them of their potential to serve as ladders into the middle class,” Kahlenberg said.

The working group recommends increased state funding for community colleges, a new federal-state partnership that provides federal dollars to states that increase their own investments, and a new body of research to establish what it costs to provide a community college education.

The cost study, it says, should take into account the population served, positive labor market outcomes for students and a range of levels of success, and also should factor in students’ basic needs, as well as the cost of direct educational services.

“Community colleges are essential if we want a society with genuine social mobility,” said John King, president of the Education Trust and former U.S. education secretary, during a panel discussion on the foundation’s report.

The public discourse about higher education focuses on elite universities, King said, and that’s because community colleges disproportionately serve low-income families and communities and thus have less political power. “Racial and socioeconomic discrimination leads to funding gaps,” he said.

King called on Congress to do more, such as develop something like the K-12 free and reduced-price school lunch program for college students. In advocating for more funding, he urged states to make the case that investing in community colleges – and in students with the greatest needs – is good for the economy. He also called on political leaders to say “the long-term well-being of society depends on equity in education.”

Basic needs

As one example of an effective solution at the local level, King cited ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) that provides extra funding for services such as public transportation and textbooks to help students in need at community colleges in the City University of New York system.

First-generation college student Hjordys Perez Matos credited her community college with giving her a sense of purpose and the resources to succeed, as she transferred to New York University (NYU) and got a job at Deloitte. When Matos got to NYU, on a full scholarship, she found the education was the same quality.

“The only difference was the resources,” she said at Thursday’s panel discussion.

Nationwide, about 57 percent of community colleges are at risk of food insecurity, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Even campus faculty and adjuncts are showing up at food pantries, she said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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