Spotlight Exclusives

May 26, 2009: The Stimulus and Poverty: Community Colleges Need More Support, By Sara Goldrick-Rab, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Posted on

Over the coming weeks, Spotlight is running a special series that examines how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act affects low-income Americans.

Previous contributions include:

First Steps toward a Strong Antipoverty Policy: New Attention to a Growing Problem” by Timothy Smeeding

“The Stimulus and Poverty: Tax and Transfer Programs in the Stimulus Bill” by Daniel R. Meyer

“The Stimulus and Poverty: Will the Federal Stimulus Bill Protect Public Education from Spending Cuts?” by Andrew Reschovsky

“The Stimulus and Poverty: President Obama۪s Plan to Expand Health Care Coverage” by Pamela Herd

The Stimulus and Poverty: A Role for Foundations in Seizing the Moment” by Olivia Golden

While the Obama Administration has only been in office for a few months, many of us in the education sector feel as though we۪re experiencing a sea change in presidential attitudes toward education. Listening to our current president talk, I have on occasion thought, “it۪s LBJ meets JFK meets Barack Obama himself.” President Obama fully embraces the notion that education is key to escaping poverty and to upward social mobility, and he is acting on this belief by putting people with this worldview in key federal positions, such as the new education Secretary Arne Duncan; increasing the Pell Grant and reducing dependence on student loans; and encouraging all citizens to receive a thirteenth year of education.

As he indicated in his January address to Congress, the President feels that the failure to attend college reflects not only on individuals, but is also tantamount to failing one۪s country. This “college for all” perspective is complemented with a new emphasis and very necessary focus on the problem of dropout in higher education. Despite decades of progress in expanding access, overall rates of college completion have stalled in the United States. As noted by a University of Michigan Population Studies Center Research Report, even as the share of U.S. high school graduates who go on to college skyrocketed by 28 percentage points from 1972 to 1992, the share of those students completing a degree inched upward by only three percentage points. At least 10 developed nations have surpassed the United States in educational attainment, and our nation ranks even lower internationally on measures of cognitive skills.

The stimulus package itself was fairly limited in addressing this problem. Admittedly, it included a very necessary increase in support for the Pell Grant a need-based entitlement whose purchasing power has steadily eroded as tuition has risen an increase that the President augmented in his 2010 budget, but it did little to address the other systemic reasons for high dropout rates.

For example, it provided only a modicum of support for community colleges. Non-baccalaureate higher education is an especially important contributor to inclusive growth. Many high-demand, well-paying jobs require a college credential, though not necessarily a four-year degree. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics measures of occupational projections and demographic changes from 2008-2009 suggest continued growth in labor market opportunities for workers with postsecondary, sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates. Studies by W. Norton Grubb, Louis Jacobson and Christine Mokher have shown that associate degree holders, in particular, earn 20 to 30 percent more than workers with a high school diploma only, and certificates in fields like health care yield substantial earnings gains for recipients.

Yet part of the erosion of America۪s longstanding educational attainment advantage can be explained by a heavy and growing reliance on community colleges. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, only one in ten students entering community college in 2002 completed an associate degree within three years. While these institutions present enormous opportunities for spreading the economic and social benefits of higher education, especially to minority students and those from lower-income backgrounds, many face serious financial constraints that place downward pressure on their performance and that of their students.

The administration۪s proposed budget expands on the stimulus bill۪s efforts to improve American higher education, and the federal government should use that budget to effectively and quickly transform community colleges. In a paper from the Brookings Institution (recently featured on this web site), my colleagues Douglas N. Harris, Christopher Mazzeo, Gregory Kienzl, and I argue that this long-overdue investment should establish national goals and a related performance measurement system, provide resources to drive college performance toward those goals, stimulate greater innovation in community college policies and practices to enhance the quality of sub-baccalaureate education, and generate data systems that can track student and institutional progress and performance over time.

Located in neighborhoods across the nation and charging lower-than-average tuition, public two-year colleges have the potential to lead individuals from lower-income backgrounds on the path to prosperity. Faced with high tuition, a weak economy, and substantial competition for admission to four-year colleges, today۪s students are more likely than ever to attend one of the nation۪s 1,045 community colleges. Annually, community college enrollment is increasing at more than twice the rate of that at four-year colleges, by 2.3 million students in the first half of this decade alone. But the country has a history of putting elite four-year colleges and universities on a pedestal, focusing the hopes and plans of students and families on them. In reality, those schools reach only a small portion of the populace, whereas community colleges touch a much broader group.

Right now, countless Americans also embrace a very narrow view of community colleges۪ potential. By casting them as providers of vocational training benefiting only local families and employers, they essentially excuse the federal government from providing much support. This generates two problems. First, it makes community colleges overly dependent on local and state dollars, where negative budget outlooks today portend deep funding cuts. Yet right now, community colleges receive less than one-third the level of federal support per full-time-equivalent student ($790) that public four-year colleges receive ($2,600), and they have correspondingly poorer outcomes. This hampers their ability to serve as gateways to economic opportunity. Second, it ignores the widespread benefits of college access, which increasingly accrue to the nation. College-educated adults are more likely to be economically secure and live healthier lives while continuing to pay taxesnot only to their local governments, but also to Washington.

To convey its strong support for community-college students۪ work and its high expectations for performance, the federal government should double its current level of direct support, from $2 billion to $4 billion, in order to account for more than 10 percent of community colleges۪ budgets. Resource needs are significant and pressing. Since 1974, the net number of new community colleges has been just 149, a growth rate of only 17 percent, so many campuses are bursting at the seams. In the short-term, this spending would support infrastructure upgrades that truly stimulate the economy. Over the longer term, it would add modestly to federal higher education expenditures, but would ensure that our nation realizes an economic payoff from increasing enrollments.

The federal government should use these new resources explicitly to promote greater success for students. Right now, community colleges are funded primarily based on enrollment, without regard to whether their students earn degrees or get good jobs. This gears their incentives toward inputs and process, rather than outcomes. Under our proposal, colleges receiving enhanced funds would be required to track and report student results, such as completion of a minimum number of credits and earning a degree. Over time, a majority of federal dollars would be awarded based not on enrollment, but on colleges۪ performance on these critical measures.

We further call on the Department of Education to target half of the $2.5 billion college-completion fund in the President۪s 2010 budget to efforts to innovate and evaluate community colleges۪ policies and practices. The two-year sector is not only over-utilized and under-resourced, but it also has too little information about how to most effectively improve student outcomes. This is a problem that can and must be remedied by connecting practitioners and well-trained researchers who share a common goal of helping community colleges succeed in meeting goals and gaining more funding in return.

It is now time to put community colleges, long on the sidelines in funding and policy debates, first. Ensuring that American workers are trained to compete in the global marketplace, are economically secure, and can fulfill their responsibilities as citizens requires expanding and improving experiences with postsecondary education. By better supporting the most affordable and accessible colleges found within all communities, and asking more of them in exchange, we can put our nation and its families back on the path to economic prosperity.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and IRP Affiliate

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives