A report published today and authored by 21 of the country’s leading higher education experts argues that America’s community colleges are vastly under-resourced and, as a result, are largely failing to fulfill their promise as engines of social mobility. The study, which is the culmination of two-plus years of research by a Century Foundation working group, puts the lion’s share of the blame for inadequate funding on policymakers, who have “systematically shortchanged community colleges.”

The study presents new data and analysis on the scope of the funding challenges at community colleges, as well as the disappointing student outcomes that result in part from inadequate funding. The paper shows that two-year colleges get significantly fewer resources than their four-year peers, despite serving students with significantly greater needs. The working group then offers a set of policy recommendations, including urging states to immediately increase funding and calling for the creation of a new federal-state partnership to invest in community colleges.

“America’s community colleges—and the nine million students they serve—are facing a crisis,” said Richard Kahlenberg, executive director of TCF’s Working Group on Community College Financial Resources. “We are starving these schools of the funding they need, asking them to do increasingly more with increasingly less, and robbing them of their potential to serve as ladders into the middle class.”

Most notably, the study recommends that policymakers and foundation officials support a new body of research that establishes what it would cost to provide an adequate community college education. While such studies are commonplace in public K-12 education, they have never been conducted in a rigorous fashion at the community college level, due to various complexities. The TCF group debated many of these challenges head-on, however, and the report concludes with a set of eight recommendations for how best to estimate the cost of a strong community college education in future research.

“The lack of attention that we pay to community colleges—in the media, in politics, and in research and advocacy—is astonishing,” added Kahlenberg. “If we want to rekindle the American Dream and rebuild the middle class, we must prioritize these quintessential American institutions. That starts with significantly increasing our investment in community colleges, ensuring that these schools have the money required to provide a meaningful education to students of all backgrounds.”

Below are key highlights from the new report, including research showing the scope and scale of the funding crisis at community colleges, as well as the group’s policy recommendations. For more information on the project, which is supported by the William T. Grant Foundation, including the complete list of members and access to background papers and edited volume, see here.

The Problem: Community Colleges by the Numbers

Unequal Funding

  • Private research institutions spend five times as much per full-time student ($72,000) as community colleges ($14,000), with public research universities spending almost three times as much ($40,000)
    • These disparities are even more stark when considering that the majority (53 percent) of community college students come from the bottom half of the income distribution (and thus need greater, not fewer, resources)
  • These inequities persist even when separating out the research function of universities
    • For example, private research universities still spend more than 3 times as much as community colleges on “educated and related” spending
  • By some metrics, these disparities have worsened in recent years
    • From 2004 to 2014, per-pupil education spending increased by 16 percent at public four-year colleges, compared to just 4 percent at community colleges
    • The share of state and local funding of two-year colleges has declined, from 64 to 52 percent, while funding from tuition revenue has increased, from 22 to 33 percent

Student Outcomes

  • Only 38 percent of students entering community college complete a degree or certificate within six years; nearly half (47 percent) are no longer enrolled after six years
  • While 81 percent of students entering community college say they aspire to transfer and receive a four-year degree, only 15 percent actually do so
  • Funding matters: research shows that more resources lead to better student outcomes
    • For example, a 10 percent spending increase at community colleges boosted the awards of certificates and degrees by 15 percent, according to one study
  • When students complete an associate’s degree, their lifetime earnings increase on average by more than $300,000
    • Taxpayers also see a positive return on smart investments in community colleges, exceeding the costs by a factor of 2.5 to 1, according to one study

The Solutions: Recommendations from the Working Group

1. Increase funding to community colleges to improve opportunities for students. State legislatures can begin to increase funding for two-year institutions to recognize the greater needs that students in community colleges, on average, have.

2. Support a new federal–state partnership for community colleges. A matching funds program in which the federal government provides new dollars if states agree to increase their own investments can provide a strong incentive for states to commit new resources necessary to support community colleges.

3. Support a new body of research that will establish what it costs to provide a strong community college education. Researchers engaging in this work should be guided by the following eight principles:

Principle 1: Any evaluation must include — as one of many outcome measures — indicators of the population served, and ideally should capture the breadth and equity of access.

Principle 2: In determining outcomes, proximal measures such as successful completion of a program should serve as the primary goal. However, these measures should include a validation check to demonstrate they translate into positive labor market outcomes for students.

Principle 3: Researchers should not cost out a single success rate, but rather focus on a range of possible levels of success, guided by research on community needs and public engagement of stakeholders.

Principle 4: Because costs vary dramatically by program, but students take some of their classes in different programs, researchers should use student course transcripts to identify typical pathways and associated costs.

Principle 5: Researchers should draw upon the best elements of the “output-oriented” and “input-oriented” approaches used in costing out studies.

Principle 6: In order to isolate which student need factors correlate with a need for greater funding, researchers should conduct a statistical analysis to determine those factors that most heavily predict reduced outcomes.

Principle 7: Researchers should separate out the costs associated with direct educational services from those associated with students’ basic needs.

Principle 8: Any cost analysis must give thorough consideration to geographic and structural cost factors as well as student need factors (outlined above) that affect the costs of achieving desired outcome goals.