The Artificially Constrained Community-College Discussion

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Seattle at a symposium of the Association of Community College Trustees on “The Journey to Completion.” The topic couldn’t be more important in a country where 81 percent of entering community-college students indicate that they would like to eventually transfer and get bachelor’s degrees, yet only 12 percent do so within six years. The sessions were lively and informative and important—focused on all the hot reforms—but I was struck as much by what was not on the agenda as by what was.

The seminar, sponsored by the leading foundations in community-college reform—Kresge, Lumina, and Gates—tapped into the knowledge and experiences of some of the nation’s top thinkers on the topic, including Thomas Bailey, of Columbia University, and Daphne Koller, of the online-education company Coursera.

One panel centered on “performance-based funding” of community colleges, the sensible idea that colleges should be financed on the basis of success rather than just the numbers of students registered. Another session considered the American Association of Community Colleges’ “Voluntary Framework of Accountability,” a worthy attempt to create metrics of accountability before a clumsy No Child Left Behind-style program is imposed by the federal government. A third session looked at the potential of online learning to improve outcomes and reduce costs at community colleges, and a fourth featured successful leaders of community colleges—including the 2013 Aspen Prize winner—discussing their use of data to improve achievement.

Those are important ideas, but as notable as the reforms discussed was what was off the table: the increasing racial and economic segregation of students between two- and four-year colleges, and the substantial shortfalls in financing at community colleges. Those trends are highly damaging to completion rates at community colleges but seemed to be treated as unfortunate but inevitable facts of life.

While the seminar included a great deal of discussion of the changing demographics of the country—and the student bodies at community colleges—there was no discussion of the growing segregation. Low-income and minority students are increasingly separated from white and wealthy students on American campuses, a phenomenon vividly documented by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University.

The consequences for college completion are clearly negative, as outlined in a report, ”Bridging the Higher Education Divide,” by the Century Foundation’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal. Careful research, controlling for entering preparation levels of students, finds that those who begin at four-year institutions—where student bodies tend to be wealthier and whiter and have greater resources—are 15 to 30 percentage points likelier to receive a bachelor’s degree than are comparable students who begin at community colleges, where student bodies are poorer and receive fewer resources.

Moreover, new research for the task force, conducted by Tatiana Melguizo and Holly Kosiewicz, of the University of Southern California, finds that within the community-college sector, students who attend wealthier and whiter community colleges in California have higher success rates (controlling for student preparation at the institutional level) than do those who attend poorer and more heavily minority community colleges.

Yet at the conference, there was no discussion of this important trend, much less any dialogue about what could be done about it. The silence implicitly suggested that nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the work of community-college leaders was limited to doing their best to try to make separate institutions as equal as possible.

Also grudgingly accepted was the “austerity assumption,” the notion that even though community-college funds have been decimated in recent years, we are unlikely to see states restore the money. From 1999 to 2009, according to the Delta Cost Project, public four-year research universities saw more than a $4,000 increase in per-pupil funds (and private research universities saw close to a $14,000 increase), while community colleges saw an increase of just $1.

That may be unfortunate, but it is the new normal, suggested David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. He championed the idea of performance-based support, whether state spending is rising or declining.

Fortunately, there was some dissent at the conference on the prevailing assumption that reforms need to be “budget neutral.” Sara Goldrick-Rab, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, suggested that repeating the prediction that state support for higher education will never return to adequate levels—instead of fighting for necessary resources—was perpetuating the problem.

And outside the conference, an important new report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, titled “Do No Harm,” is pushing back on the idea that large gains in access and completion can be made in a budget-neutral environment.

The truth is that reforms are unlikely to be highly successful without adequate resources. Century’s task force, co-chaired by Eduardo Padron and Anthony Marx, said it was important to embrace the types of innovation discussed at the conference—improved use of technology, performance-based financing, greater accountability, and better use of data—but that those ideas had to be coupled with efforts to reduce stratification and provide adequate funds.

Ireland, which has embraced performance financing, has had some success, Longanecker noted, when it combined that reform with additional weighted financing for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. The premium in financing is meant to recognize that it costs more, not less, to successfully educate high-need students.

Likewise, as Shanna Smith Jaggars, of Columbia University, noted, online learning without face-to-face interaction can lead to poorer outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The more effective online-learning reform—the “flipped classroom,” in which lectures are delivered online but interactive instruction takes place in person—is not cheap, she said.

I left the conference moved by the commitment of trustees from community colleges across the country, as well as by the determination of the fund providers and researchers who were present. But if we want to be truly successful, the conversation needs to be broadened.

Decades of research suggest that college segregation and inadequate funds for education impose a devastating toll. Why do we think that we can make big strides in community colleges without dealing with those matters?

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, served as executive director of its Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal.

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