It is an American higher education original that delivers so much to so many for so little, and yet its full impact is often underappreciated. It is a lack of awareness that could be potentially troubling as smaller communities seek to dig out of the economic mayhem of the pandemic and get on the road to recovery.
Unlike the baccalaureate-granting liberal arts institution that was modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, and the research university that has Teutonic roots, the community college is a quintessentially American model for modern higher education. Flung far and wide into every kind of community from the boroughs of New York to the barrios of Los Angeles, the humble two-year public sector of postsecondary education punches far above its weight by enrolling almost half of all undergraduates and imparting learning at a fraction of the cost of its more prestigious sibling sectors made up of the public four-year and the private four-year institutions, respectively.
Serving dual goals
In some states like mine, seven out of 10 undergraduates attend a community college. Over the decades, the minutiae of the mission of the community college have varied in its specifics, but broadly it remains centered on the principle of an open-access pathway to one of two goals: either a transfer to a four-year institution or a credentialed enhancement of job skills, though the distinction between the two goalposts is considered nebulous by some progressive community college leaders.
The execution of this mission is all the more remarkable in that community colleges, devoted exclusively to teaching rather than cutting-edge research, mostly function without any million-dollar endowments or huge research grants, rarely have employees that make seven-figure salaries, and draw a disproportionately large percentage of their students from populations that have been historically underrepresented in higher education.
All this is done with a revenue stream that rests on relatively modest tuition, statutory outlays from local governments and state aid grants linked to the number of state residents enrolled.
A foundation in the community
A crucial byproduct of the noble mission of the community college is its role as an anchor of social and economic stability for its supporting community, the geopolitical unit (often a county or group of counties designated as such by state statute) which sponsors the institution and whose tax base provides a certain percentage of the operational revenues of the college.
This anchoring role is especially important in the more rural, isolated or underserved parts of the country, where all too often the community college is the community’s sole institution for cultural enrichment, literary pursuits, and the enjoyment of the fine arts and music.
But the college’s community role goes far beyond that of an incubator of aesthetics and decidedly into the more prosaic realm of economic vitality. Above and beyond the individual benefit and social return on investment that results from higher lifetime incomes of better-trained individuals and their decreased reliance on the safety net, many community colleges are pillars of economic stability per se, by virtue of being some of the few enterprises in economically stagnant areas that provide stable employment to an educated workforce and predictably purchase significant amounts local goods and services.
For each dollar that the local taxpayers invest in their community colleges, they reap returns of several dollars in terms of greater economic activity, jobs and tax revenue. This economic multiplier effect has been quantified and well documented across the country, from Salem, New Jersey, where a taxpayer dollar produces a five-fold return to Great Bend, Kansas, where taxpayer dollar is circulated six times to Clark County, Nevada, with a modest yet robust tripling of the return of each dollar in taxes.
The farther an area is from the principal economic arteries of the country, the more likely it is that the local community college plays a bigger role as the circulation node for local tax dollars; this should not come as a surprise to economic impact modeling professionals who study the intricacies of linkages and leakages in regional economies.
As state and local governments begin reviewing the fiscal carnage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and do the necessary belt-tightening, care should be exercised when it comes to local support for community colleges. A precipitous pullback of taxpayer support for their local community colleges may well trigger a reverse economic multiplier effect that, in turn, can hobble already weakened local economies precisely when some assurance of stability is needed for sustainable recovery.
Getting back to some semblance of normalcy requires a measure of social and economic stability in communities, and few existing institutions are as well equipped to provide that stability as anchor institutions like community colleges are. That is, if these colleges are supported in that endeavor by the communities that sponsor them and by the state legislatures that set the broad policy frameworks for economic recovery in the months to come.
Analysis from collegiate business officers suggests that at least a quarter of the budgets of local governments is on shaky ground, and significant cuts to outlays are inevitable, barring major and targeted stimulus help from Washington, D.C., which is yet to materialize. Long-term economic prudence on part of local and state policymakers would dictate that community colleges not bear a disproportionate share of these rescissions, lest a vital ramp to recovery be seriously compromised for the very communities that need it most.