America’s Scandalous Underfunding of Community Colleges

Media discussions of “college” or “college costs” tend to get very confused because media people overwhelmingly attended (and expect their children to attend) highly selective institutions of higher education. The big gap is between people who went to very selective private schools (Yale! Princeton!) and those who went to very selective public schools (Michigan! UVA!) while the large majority of Americans who go to much less selective institutions tends to get ignored. In particular, we hear very little about community colleges even though these are the schools that tend to serve the marginal student and where higher education as a ladder of opportunity for low-income people will either succeed or fail.


But here’s a striking fact. If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the past decade, you’ve heard a lot about states cutting back on their funding of higher education. What you hear less about is that high-end public institutions of higher learning—the “public research universities” in the chart above—have responded to these funding cuts by drastically increasing per student spending in failed effort to keep up with the prestigious private universities who’ve been ramping up spending in an even more dramatic way. Consequently, tuition hikes have compensated for over 100 percent of of the funding cutbacks. The schools that have truly faced sharp resource constraints are the community colleges that you don’t hear about. Their aggregate spending is essentially flat, meaning that due to the magic of Baumol’s Cost Disease they’ve had to respond to funding cutbacks by reducing service levels even while raising tuition. What makes it especially egregious is that these institutions started off spending less to begin with. Community college students have the greatest level of need, but they receive the least resources and they’re increasingly pressed but tend to get overlooked in media accounts of funding arguments that instead focus on exclusive schools with a much more affluent client base.

At any rate, I’m inspired to mention this by an excellent new report The Century Foundation put out today (PDF) that takes a look at the divergent fortunes between community colleges and selective schools over the decades. I knew about the funding disparities, and it’s obvious that community colleges serve poorer students and more minorities but I didn’t know that the socioeconomic gap in student bases has grown over the past 25 years.