According to a new report by the Century Foundation, the higher education landscape in America is becoming increasingly unequal. Schools like community colleges that serve a more low-income and minority student population are getting increasingly short-changed when it comes to federal funding.
According to the report, this means that although separate-but-equal education was made illegal in the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the system that replaced is not in practice performing much better when it comes to providing quality education to poor and minority students.
Between 1999 and 2009, the budget at public research universities — like the University of Wisconsin-Madison — increased by nearly $4,000 per student, while community college budgets increased by $1 per student, the report says. That’s even though 66 percent of community college students need some kind of remedial training.
Federal and state educational polices haven’t kept pace with the growing enrollment at community colleges, where lower tuition may mean students are not eligible for existing aid programs, the study points out.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the authors of the report and a professor at UW-Madison, explained that in some cases funding for community colleges was lower than funding for high school. The differences in funding could be a contributing factor to historically low graduation rates at community colleges.
The report shows that fewer than 20% of “highly qualified” college students who start their higher education careers at community colleges go on to complete their four-year degrees compared to 69% of similarly qualified students at four-year colleges.
Because community college enrollment numbers are growing nationwide, this poor graduation rate is making it much less likely that the US will achieve the goal set by the Obama administration to have the highest rates of college graduation among the developed economies of the world by 2020.
Although the US was ranked second in graduation rates among young people in 1996, it currently ranks 14th on the same survey.
To reach the first-in-the-world goal, community colleges will need to produce 5 million additional graduates by 2020 – a benchmark the report says they’re unlikely to hit with ongoing budget constraints.
The distinction between K–12 and higher education policy on the issue of racial and economic stratification between institutions is striking. Elite higher education has recognized the need to integrate by race, adopting affirmative action programs to enhance the representation of African American and Latino students, but there has been no comparable effort to integrate by socioeconomic status. And there is little deliberate effort to draw more middle and upper-middle class students to community colleges, as “magnet schools” work to do at the K–12 level.