How to Boost Spending on Community Colleges

President Obama has put community colleges at the center of the effort to raise U.S. student attainment rates, yet a new report from the Delta Cost Project suggests financial support for the two-year sector is in decline.  The gross mismatch between the grand expectations for community colleges and the declining resources calls for creative thinking about how to boost funding for—and results from—two-year institutions.

According to the report, “Trends in College Spending 1999-2009,” community colleges are spending about the same amount of money educating students as a decade ago, even as per-pupil spending increased by 11 percent at public research universities and 27 percent at private research universities.  In 2009, community colleges actually saw a 2.5-percent decline in per student spending.

Of course, community colleges spend less per student than four-year colleges in part because less tuition is charged, but the average public subsidy is also lower at community colleges, the Delta Project finds. As a result, the students with the greatest needs and greatest challenges receive the least amount of public funding.

Compare this situation to K-12 schooling.  Fairness in primary and secondary school spending has not been fully achieved,  but according to a new report from Third Way, featured in the Wall Street Journal, Americans do put more federal, state, and local resources on average into low-income school districts than middle-class districts  (though both spend less than school districts with affluent student bodies).  In 2008, middle-class school districts spent $10,349 per student, compared with $11,799 per student in low-income school districts (and $11,925 in upper-income districts.)

While inequities remain at the K-12 level, advocates of greater funding for low-income students have pursued a number of equity strategies, some to substantial effect.  The first was federal aid to education through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is progressively distributed based on the proportion of students who are low-income. A second strategy involved state-level litigation, in which lawsuits were brought in dozens of states to provide either “adequate” or “equitable” funding.  Many of these suits were successful, and in New Jersey, litigation has actually compelled the state to spend considerably more on low-income districts than on middle-class districts.  A third effort involved school desegregation; in many minority schools that saw an influx of white students, greater funding followed. The slogan was: “green follows white.”

At the higher-education level, President Obama’s recent $5-billion proposal to maintain and upgrade  facilities in community colleges is a very important idea, smartly marrying the need to bolster community colleges with the desire to create construction jobs at a time of high unemployment.  But the prospects in Congress are unclear at best, and the proposal may face the fate of the administration’s American Graduation Initiative, which saw a $12-billion proposal for community colleges cut to $2-billion.

To attract greater resources in the future, community colleges may want to borrow from the integration model employed in K-12 schooling. As I’ve noted elsewhere, over the long haul, community colleges have seen a decline in the proportion of white and upper-middle class students, which may be weakening the political and financial support provided to the two-year sector.  Cuts in community-college funding may spawn further middle-class flight, continuing a downward spiral.

Conscious efforts to win back middle- and upper-middle class students could, by contrast, create a virtuous cycle of greater political capital and stronger financial support from state and local governments.  In addition, a return of upper-middle class students, who, on average, are more likely to graduate, could foster positive peer influences on all students in community colleges.  Middle-class students might be attracted by community-college honors programs, early college programs, or opportunities to gain a bachelor’s degree in a community-college setting.

Bringing in more middle-class students might be seen as squeezing out more deserving low-income students in the short term, but ultimately, a community-college sector which educates students from all kinds of backgrounds will be stronger and benefit everyone who attends.  The new data on declining revenues make clear that community colleges need to be open to a variety of new approaches if they want to succeed with the new challenges being laid at their doorsteps.

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