Community Colleges: A Failing Safety Net

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May 31, 2017

A generation of the most needy students is being priced out of the most affordable rung of the higher education ladder, suggests a recent report from the Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. The report examines the fraying of the community college safety net and calls for states to address these challenges more directly.

Traditionally, community college in the U.S. has been a route into higher education for students with low income backgrounds or poorer-quality academic preparation. Community colleges provide a self-contained two-year Associate’s Degree, enabling students to undertake training to enter the jobs market. Many also provide a transfer function, with states enabling Associate’s Degree students to transfer their credits to a four-year college degree should they wish to continue their education. Indeed, 46% of students who graduate with a four-year degree had previously been enrolled at a community college at some point in the last ten years, highlighting the importance of this mechanism to increasing the college-educated workforce.

Community college students make up 46% of all U.S. undergraduates. However, 53% of first-generation undergraduates attend community colleges, whilst only 37% of community college students’ parents have a bachelor’s degree or above. Community colleges also disproportionately serve minority groups, with 52% of all Black undergraduates and 57% of all Hispanic undergraduates attending these institutions. Clearly, community colleges serve a vital function in training young people from low-income and under-served backgrounds.

Community colleges are also important in providing a well-trained workforce for states. Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that an average of 66% jobs in each state will require an Associate’s Degree or higher by 2020. Yet, in 2014, the state-average proportion of the population with this credential was just 40%. As this disparity indicates, states need to increase enrollment in community colleges in order to meet their workforce needs. However, recent trends indicate that enrollment in community college is declining. At a time of population increase in the US, community college enrollment has fallen from 6.3m to 5.7m between 2013 and 2016, with enrollment in public 4-year colleges failing to make-up the shortfall,  increasing by just 0.2m in the same period.

The declining affordability of community college is likely to be at least in part a cause of declining enrollment. This can be seen in the differing outcomes for full-time and part-time community college students. Full-time students, most of whom receive financial aid and need to work fewer hours to fund their education, graduate community college at a rate of 57% within 6 years compared to just 39% of part-time students.

However, full-time students are themselves now facing increasing economic pressures. Analysis by The University of Pennsylvania found that in a majority of states, even a full-time community college student would have to work over 20 hours a week in order to cover the cost of enrolling after factoring in financial aid. Meanwhile, the same analysis found that the cost of attending community college, when measured in the most realistic terms—as a percentage of annual family income—had decreased in just 12 states between 2008 and 2013, and increased in 34. States are failing their young people, and jeopardizing their own economic prosperity, by overseeing a decline in community college affordability.

What can state policymakers do to address this challenge? Unsurprisingly, the simplest, yet most difficult, solution is to increase appropriations for community colleges. Whilst this would go a long way to improving affordability, it is not an easy option for many states, whose budgets are facing increasing pressures and for whom discretionary higher education spending is an easy target for cuts. Three more realistic potential solutions do exist:

  1. States need to change the way they determine community college tuition. Rather than allowing annually-negotiated state appropriations to dictate tuition, policymakers should consider a more holistic conception of how students fund their education. Such an approach should center on setting the ticket price of community college at an agreed proportion of the average family income in the state. While this guideline may be a non-binding commitment unable to be met every year, it would at least make clear to policymakers the true cost of college that they are passing on to young people and their families.
  2. States need to take a longer-term view when dictating education spending. As this article makes clear, many states are likely to fall-short of providing the level of education in the workforce that the economy desires. Rather than simply dictating education spending on an annual basis, policymakers should consider the longer-term workforce needs of their state, and question whether the education policy they are setting now will provide the level of expertise that the economy will need in five to ten years’ time.
  3. Policymakers should clarify the role of community colleges in a state’s education system. In some states, such as California, where almost two-thirds of students attend community college, it is a long-held ambition that community college should be a gateway to higher education and accessible for all. However in others, such as Pennsylvania, which has the smallest number of community colleges per adult resident of any state, the role of community colleges in the state’s education infrastructure has never been properly defined. As such community colleges are sporadically located and underfunded. Even where funds are lacking, a coherent strategy for the role of community colleges in a state could go a long way to improving quality, access, and utility.

Faced with a sustained, challenging fiscal context, state policymakers have struggled to maintain funding for community colleges. However, it is through community colleges that state governments are able to provide adequate educational opportunity to citizens, and it is therefore essential to maintain and improve their quality and accessibility. Failure to confront this challenge risks not just the ability of states to meet the needs of their citizens, but also their ability to compete in a modern, global economy where well-educated workforces will fuel successful communities.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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