Early in his presidency, Obama declared an objective that has become a rallying cry for higher education: Increase our college completion rates so that America has the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. It's an ambitious goal that most educators believe can't be reached without increasing participation from underrepresented groups, such as minority, low-income, single-parent and other adult students.
Community colleges have long been on the front lines for students who are disenfranchised from higher ed. Their low sticker price, open admissions policies and career-oriented programs make them an accessible and affordable choice for individuals who are otherwise disconnected from postsecondary education. And the current recession has increased their share of 'traditional' students as well. Families who are feeling the economic pinch and looking for a low-cost option often turn to 2-year institutions. Furthermore, public universities are becoming overcrowded, leading many students to choose to pursue an associate's degree after high school rather than go straight to a 4-year institution.
In fact, the Pew Research Center found that 2-year schools account for the lion's share of the recent college enrollment surge brought on by the recession. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) reports that community colleges saw an average enrollment increase of 17% over the past two years. Yet, according to a brief recently released by the AACC, they still receive less than a third of all government funding for public colleges and universities.
Community Colleges Get the 'Short Stick' in Education Funding
''Doing More With Less: The Inequitable Funding of Community Colleges'' compares the funding of community colleges with other sectors of higher education. The report finds that there is a significant gap, which has had a negative effect on important student services as well as the ability of 2-year institutions to accept all applicants, a crucial element of their role in increasing national college completion rates.
Previous research by the AACC indicates that community colleges serve 43% of the U.S. undergraduate population, including the largest percentage of minority students - they enroll 53% of Hispanic students, 45% of black, 45% of Asian/Pacific Islander and 52% of Native American. Clearly they play an important role in educating the American public, yet their funding doesn't reflect it. The AACC's new brief shows that they only received 27% of all federal, state and local revenues for public degree-granting institutions in the 2007-2008 school year.
From Doing More With Less: The Inequitable Funding of Community Colleges by the AACC, page 5
State monies are especially important to community colleges, which receive almost 60% of their operating funds from state and local sources. But it's at the state level that higher education, and community colleges in particular, have been hit the hardest. As the graph above indicates, state tax appropriations for higher education have decreased steadily since the 1970s. In 2008, they were at only 4.5% of total state expenditures. Over the same period of time, community colleges share of those appropriations has held steady at about 20%, with the rest going to public 4-year colleges and universities. This means that community colleges are getting about one-fifth of 4.5% of total state expenditures - hardly enough to support the rapid growth of these institutions.
Community colleges also come up short in the federal funding distribution. They receive significantly less than other higher education sectors in a number of federal grant programs, including SMART and TEACH grants, Academic Competitiveness and Federal Work-Study. Their students also receive fewer federal dollars. Only 10% of community college students take out federal loans, as compared to 42% of students at public 4-year schools, 55% at private 4-year and 88% at for-profit colleges. A recent report from the College Board suggests that this disparity is largely due to a lack of applications from community college students, who are less likely to be familiar with the financial aid process. Nevertheless, it reflects the way that community colleges and their students tend to be financially 'ghettoized' by the education funding system.
Student Services Suffer
In spite of these funding shortfalls, community colleges remain exceptionally committed to their core mission - teaching. In 2007, they spent 44.5% of their education and general funds on instruction, as compared to 39.6% at private research institutions and 36.1% at public research institutions. Faculty at community colleges also spend more hours teaching than their peers at other institutions. Yet they're paid less: The average salary for a full-time faculty member at a community college in 2008-2009 was $60,857. Full-time faculty earned an average of $74,209 at public 4-year schools and $78,316 at private 4-year schools the same year. Similarly, college administrators earn significantly less at community colleges than other postsecondary institutions.
Even more troubling are the effects that the funding shortfall has on students. Although the AACC asserts that 'the focus on instruction has been a community college constant,' other important student services have suffered. As noted above, the College Board recently found that community college students tend to receive less federal aid because they're less likely to understand the process. Financial aid counseling is therefore crucial to making college affordable, but a lack of funding has made it difficult for community colleges to offer adequate services in this area.
The academic support system is also suffering. Research shows that proactive outreach such as early alert systems and 'intrusive,' or college-initiated, academic counseling is crucial for increasing academic achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students. This is especially important at institutions like community colleges, which serve a larger academically at-risk population. Yet 2-year institutions struggle to commit adequate funds to these services.
Perhaps most worrisome is the change in admissions policies. Since 2008, budget shortfalls have forced community colleges to turn away prospective students from high-demand programs such as healthcare. It's a bad sign for increasing college completion rates if the 'front line' of the effort has to turn students away. This is also likely to have a negative effect on the workforce. Healthcare is one of the fastest growing fields, with a projected need for workers to fill 2.7 million jobs in the next eight years. Community colleges educate over half of new professionals in the healthcare field - if they're turning people away, then we're looking at a worker shortfall in the middle of a recession.
It's clear that more higher education resources need to be diverted to community colleges. Obama's American Graduation Initiative (AGI), launched in 2009, has helped bring 2-year institutions to the forefront of the postsecondary education dialogue. But for community colleges to meet their communities' needs, dollars need to follow this attention. The AACC lauds the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which made an additional $2 billion available to higher education, as an important start, but only the beginning. Funding inequities in higher education must be addressed for our country to meet its college completion goals.