Researchers: Invest more in community colleges

For higher education in the United States to match the education levels of other countries, more federal funding should be spent on nurturing community colleges, said speakers at a May 20 webinar.

Education researchers spoke of ways to improve the country’s weaknesses in higher education during a Hechinger Institute webinar, and all three cited the importance of community colleges as a way to meet President Barack Obama’s vow that the U.S. will lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020.

Arthur Hauptman, who authored the report "Cost, Commitment, and Attainment in Higher Education" with Young Kim, said that one of the strategies the U.S. should consider to achieve higher attainment of a college degree at sustainable levels of cost and commitment is to focus more resources and attention on community colleges.

"One effective way for the United States to economize in higher education, while at the same time becoming more productive, is to shift public resources toward less costly sub-bachelors programs in community colleges, while ensuring that these programs lead more students to successful outcomes, including credentials and degrees of value in the labor market," Hauptman and Kim wrote in the report.

The objective of Hauptman’s and Kim’s report was to examine the extent to which a country’s attainment rates correlate with high cost levels and/or financial commitment to higher education.

The report found that while the amount of money the U.S. spends on tertiary education per student ranked first out of the 30 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the country ranked 15th on the amount of money spent on research. The share of gross domestic product spent on public schools ranked 15th, though it ranked first for private schools. Rankings were determined by data from 2005. U.S. attainment rates ranked third overall for workers ages 25 to 34, ranking second for bachelors degrees and ninth for sub-bachelors degrees.

"If we’re going to reach the president’s goal of increasing the number of folks who have a year or maybe two years of college, we’re going to have to focus on community colleges. They are absolutely the key to increasing attainment in the United States in a cost effective and inclusive manner," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. She co-authored the recent report, "Transforming America’s Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity."

She noted that community colleges are already available and accessible to the vast majority of Americans and serve a very high share of minority and lower-income people.

"If we want to encourage inclusive growth, which is important for diminishing economic inequality and pulling ourselves out of this recession, then we need to target a sector that serves these communities very well," Goldrick-Rab said.

While community college enrollment has increased 46 percent from 1987 to 2006–enrollment at four-year institutions has only grown 24 percent–Goldrick-Rab said community colleges face serious challenges. For example, dropout rates are close to 50 percent, and only one-third of students complete a degree or certificate within six years.

Goldrick-Rab said that to increase attainment, the federal government needs to double the amount of money it spends on community colleges.

"Right now, most community colleges depend extremely heavily on states and local communities for their budgets, and federal spending–including all of student aid–supplies only 15 percent of their revenue … [and] that makes them very, very vulnerable during an economic downturn," she said.


"Cost, Commitment, and Attainment in Higher Education"

"Transforming America’s Community Colleges"

Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media