Anti-Urban Bias?

New research asks why the community colleges most likely to serve low-income students are likely to receive less money.
August 2, 2005

Urban community colleges are the entry point to higher education for many minority and low-income students.

The importance of these institutions made Alicia C. Dowd wonder how they fared in terms of revenue. Previous studies have indicated that institutions that serve many students from low-income families have more money coming in than do other institutions because of state and federal support for such students.

But Dowd, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has found that community colleges located outside of urban areas have revenue levels that are 13-18 percent higher than those in urban areas, even when adjustments are made for enrollment size, the proportion of students who are enrolled part time, and other factors.

In a paper published on the Web site of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, Dowd analyzes the apparent inequity between urban and non-urban districts and analyzes possible causes for the gaps, while acknowledging that there is no single clear answer. Dowd notes that the issue is a significant one because the many demands on community colleges have led to disputes in several states over financing formulas.

And too often, Dowd writes, the disputes do not necessarily lead to anyone providing more money for the community colleges that need it. "Issues related to financial equity and access to community colleges remain part of the public debate ... but today compete with other political priorities and are subject to neglect," she writes.

After illustrating the gap between urban and non-urban community colleges, Dowd offers several possible theories for why it exists:

  • Many states have official or unofficial practices of "leveling up" selected community college districts, so if formulas result in urban institutions getting more money, there is some redistribution to suburban or rural institutions.
  • In many states, urban institutions are at a disadvantage politically. Legislative coalitions "isolate urban legislators, whose constituents and economic agenda may be perceived as distinct from and in competition with those of legislators from the suburbs, towns and rural areas," Dowd writes.
  • Many states provide extra funds for community colleges that offer expensive technical programs that many urban districts have a tough time setting up.
  • In states with significant local support for community colleges, urban areas face a "relatively high social welfare burden" that may make it difficult for them to make higher education a priority.

Dowd notes that many states have had intense debates over the equity of support for public schools in urban and suburban areas, and she suggests that analysis of inequities in community colleges needs more attention.

Without some sustained effort to identify the source of the financing gap (and to eliminate it if it is unfair), Dowd writes that urban community colleges will be forced to "produce fewer educational outcomes or outcomes of a lesser quality than comparable non-urban institutions."


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