Reinvesting in Community Colleges

A new report challenges federal and state policy makers to increase funding for community colleges to improve social mobility.

April 26, 2019
 
The Century Foundation
Former U.S. secretary of education John B. King Jr.

Community colleges enroll large numbers of low-income students, who increasingly are students of color. And policy makers are challenging two-year colleges to increase socioeconomic mobility for those students. Yet a new report, backed by a broad range of experts, says community colleges are not being adequately funded.

The report released Thursday by the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan progressive think tank, calls for greater investment in the country’s community colleges by building federal-state partnerships that incentivize states to reinvest. The foundation also called on lawmakers to support research that would for the first time establish the true cost of educating community college students.

“Community colleges are described as a ticket to the middle class,” said John B. King Jr., former U.S. secretary of education during the Obama administration. “Community colleges have the majority of their students coming from the bottom two income quartiles, as opposed to elite private universities, where maybe, at best, a fifth of students come from the bottom two income quartiles. So, community colleges are essential if we want to have a society where folks can move across income quartiles.”

But community colleges are not producing the number of graduates needed to meet labor and work-force demands, or to improve social mobility. About 62 percent of students entering community college fail to complete a degree or certificate within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And only 15.2 percent of those students are still enrolled in college, while 47.3 percent are not.

A working group of 20 education experts behind the report recommended the federal-state partnerships, which would encourage states to increase their investments in two-year colleges by offering federal matching funds, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation and executive director of the working group.

“The federal government continues to increase the Pell Grant, which all of us support, but there is some feeling among members of Congress that states need to do their part as well,” Kahlenberg said. The foundation plans to circulate the report on Capitol Hill and hopes 2020 presidential candidates take up the issue, he said.

Federal spending on financial aid tripled from $50 billion in 1995 to more than $150 billion in 2015, the report said, while state spending on higher education per full-time student fell by 28 percent.

The report said completion rates at community colleges are low because these institutions are deeply underfunded even as they admit all students, who typically are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged than students who attend four-year institutions. Nearly half of the country's undergraduate students attend community colleges.

Private, four-year colleges spend an average of $72,000 per full-time student each year, the report found, which is five times more than the $14,000 community colleges typically spend. Public universities spend $40,000 each year on full-time students. Even when excluding research spending, private universities spend triple what community colleges do, and public four-year institutions spend 60 percent more.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat and candidate for her party's presidential nomination, on Monday proposed a similar federal-state partnership for all two- and four-year public institutions. Warren’s proposal splits the costs of tuition and fees between states and the federal government while requiring states to maintain their current levels of funding on need-based financial aid and academic instruction.

“We have seen across the country systematic disinvestment by states, and we need an approach to federal investment that incentivizes states to put in more,” King said. “One of the bleak realities we have to acknowledge is that … as we move to a higher population that is more African American and more Latino, there is less enthusiasm among some parts of the American voting public for investing in those students and communities.”

But a federal-state partnership is not enough, he said, because community colleges and students still need more Pell Grant funding. King also said the country should create a national lunch program for higher education.

“Some people say that sounds really expensive, but we didn’t mind doing a $1.5 trillion tax cut for the wealthiest Americans,” King said. “Let’s take that back and invest it in the long-term well-being of our society.”

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in the City University of New York system, said additional resources community college students need could mean the difference between their ability to study for a few hours a day or to work two jobs.

“What money gives them is food security, housing security and this amazing thing we take for granted -- the ability to study, read and focus on your work,” Mellow said.

The foundation considers the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative from CUNY as a good example of how increasing funding for tutoring, advising and financial aid at community colleges can lead to a greater return on investment. ASAP costs the system 60 percent more per student, or about $16,300 more per student over three years. But it has reduced the amount spent for each college degree awarded by more than 10 percent, according to the report.

“ASAP, which everyone touts as this amazing piece, is just about a third more money a year, and it’s on a very small basis,” Mellow said. “So, going full-time to LaGuardia for the whole year is about $5,000. You up that by 30 percent and you can provide the resources students need.”

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