Preventing Separate and Unequal

A new report from the Century Foundation offers a pathway to a revolution for community colleges. Wick Sloane urges the colleges' presidents and students to hear the call.

May 28, 2013

Attention (please), all 11 million community college students and 1,200 community college presidents.  (I am screaming here.)  Where are you?  The Century Foundation started a revolution -– for all of you.

This revolution comes in The Report of the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, released last Thursday in Washington, D.C.  Revolution? Yes. Now, you, 11 million students and1,100 presidents, need to revolt.

In a-dream-I-have come true, the Century Foundation report offers not only a policy path to righting the disgraceful inequities of community college funding but also a litigation strategy from the civil rights attorney John Brittain. (Disclaimer: I met Brittan in the 1990s, when I was on a Connecticut school board while he was successfully litigating Sheff versus O’Neill, one of the first cases to equalize K-12 funding beyond local property taxes. Brittain is a hero of mine.) 

Examining the many facts and proposals in the Century report will require another column or two.  Here’s a start:  What’s missing?  Leaders to act.  (I am screaming again here.) 

All of you, 11 million community college students and 1,100 community college presidents (please), grab the Century data!  Protest!  Petition the government for a redress of grievances!  March on Washington! 

As with LBJ during the Civil Rights Movement, President Obama knows what needs to be done for justice and equity for the short-end-of-the-straw-holding 44 percent of students in college today: community college students. Unlike LBJ, backed by Martin Luther King and thousands of protesters, President Obama has had not a shred of grown-up political pressure from community colleges to help community colleges. (Do I need to scream again?) 

President Obama has given us two huge opportunities that we, community colleges, have muffed, flubbed, blown, dropped the ball on.  Obama included the $15 billion American Graduation Initiative in his first budget, which we, the community colleges, failed to support in Congress.  Yes, I know the party line, the money shriveled and Pell needed the support.  I know, too, that community colleges have in students alone 11 million potential votes no one mobilized in support.

A year later, President Obama gave community colleges the White House Summit, with an all-day White House press spin and the president himself speaking.  Community colleges showed up without an agenda or, in Washington speak, “an ask.” Those community college leaders I spoke with at the summit said how wonderful it was that community colleges were being discussed at the White House. 

Now, again for us in community colleges, on a silver platter, comes the report from the Century Foundation, with the unmistakable diagnosis, “Separate and unequal.” That’s right, invoking the civil rights, U.S. Supreme Court, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education declaration that segregated schools are unequal.  The 155-page Century report, the book Bridging the Higher Education Divide, lays out page after page of evidence that public higher education funding, state and federal, shortchanges the poorest students with the highest need.  Segregation, the report states, has shifted from racial only to racial and economic.

Here’s a sample of the Century data to fuel a revolt: 

  • “Between 1999 and 2009, community college funding increased just one dollar per student, while per student funding at private research universities jumped almost $14,000.” 
  • “While wealthy students outnumber poor students at the most selective four-year colleges by 14:1, community colleges educate twice as many low-income students as high-income students.” 
  • The federal tax and research-overhead subsidies at Princeton University, for example, amount to about $54,000 per student. (To which I add that the most federal aid a community college student can hope for is a full Pell Grant, about $5,500.) 
  • The approximate state appropriation for a public community college student is $4,209, versus $12,611 for a public bachelor’s degree student. 

The report includes thoughtful, if controversial, policy proposals.  My top two are the first two. 

  • Adopt state and federal “adequacy”-based funding in higher education akin to that used in primary and secondary education, combined with consideration of outcomes.
  • Establish greater transparency regarding public financial subsidies to higher education.

Who could object?  Well, the four-year college lobby, I think. Remedies inequities must come from somewhere. Missing? Leaders to take on the work of just these two policy proposals. 

Most inspiring (to me) and perhaps most controversial is the proposed litigation strategies developed by Brittain. (Pages 40-41 of the report; subject of another column.) The strategy echoes the careful, incremental steps Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took in the decades of cases preparing for Brown v. Board of Education. 

I am hoarse but I’ll be as loud as I can: Attention, again, 11 million community college students and 1,100 community college presidents. Please come forward with plaintiffs. At this point, Brown v. Board of Education had 20 years to go. Get going. Please. 

The start of a revolution? Am I exaggerating? Not a bit. As important as the inequity data and the litigation strategy, is the sponsor, the Century Foundation, a think tank whose nonpartisan work reaches beyond education.

The foundation has brought to the debate about whether the U.S. will have a work force for the 21st century new players in new combination, such as Brittain, and the New York Public Library President (and former Amherst College President) Anthony Marx, and Eduardo Padron, president of the nation’s largest nonprofit college, Miami Dade. This is a group I don’t see as having the patience for those who would arrive at a White House summit without an agenda. 

Just one of the report’s welcome warning shots that caused me to take vacation days and head to Washington:  “As Brown v. Board of Education helped galvanize our nation to address deep and enduring inequalities that had long been taken for granted, so today it is time to address – head on – abiding racial and economic inequalities in our system of American higher education.  To date, community college reform is mostly about sharing best practices, an important but overly narrow discussion.” 

Over this past holiday weekend, I didn’t track down the first-draft-pick leaders of the revolution, the presidents of the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees. That’s for later this week. So far, the websites of both have no mention of the revolution.

Is this necessary revolution impossible? Here’s what I know from a discussion a few years ago with the Honorable William T. Coleman, one of the surviving NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) lawyers from Brown.

I told him lawyers everywhere were telling me that litigation to address the community colleges’ funding inequities was impossible. Federal courts would never take the case. Lawyers would be hit with a federal Rule 11 fine, for filing a frivolous lawsuit. 

Coleman replied, “What do you think people were telling us at the LDF back then?”

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Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.


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