Community college is key to rethinking higher-ed

Community college is key to rethinking higher-ed
With coronavirus drawing attention to widespread socioeconomic disparities, many are calling for renewed effort to combat inequality.

From near universal health care to paid family leave, Massachusetts is already a leading state when it comes to progressive policies. But pubic higher education—perhaps the strongest economic leveler—stands out as an area where Massachusetts trails. So many of the essential workers standing in harm’s way today attend community colleges. These low-income students strive to earn college degrees, but too many are held back by insurmountable economic barriers.

The series of charts below illustrate how and why the status quo doesn’t allow these hardworking students to achieve their aspirations. We also offer thoughts on an evidence-based strategy to dramatically improve their outcomes.

This harsh reality is evident in data tracking Massachusetts public school students for a six-year period after their high school class’ scheduled graduation. For the high school class of 2011, 47 percent of white students earned a post-secondary degree by 2018, compared to just 21 percent of black students and only 15 percent of Hispanic students.

Even more troubling, if we compare the class of 2011 to the class of 2007, white students increased post-secondary completion at roughly twice the pace (7 percentage points) of Hispanic and black students (3 and 4 percentage points, respectively). The Great Recession, which unfolded over this interval, certainly led more students to enroll in higher education, but students of color still found it exceedingly difficult to earn a degree. This trend no doubt contributed to a very uneven recovery.

More recent figures charting the class of 2018’s progress show a sharp divide persists. Among students from the class of 2018, 59 percent of Hispanic students and 44 percent of black students did not go on to college in the fall. In stark contrast, less than a third of white students delayed post-secondary studies.

The large number of students of color who do not pursue higher education without interruption underscores the important and often overlooked function of community colleges. These institutions draw only a small fraction of students entering post-secondary education directly from high school, but they represent a very large share of public higher education enrollment in Massachusetts. During the 2017-2018 academic year (the most recent period for which full data are available), community colleges served 44 percent of all the students attending public colleges and universities in the state.

The chart below shows most community college students tackle classes part-time, often while working full-time jobs. In contrast, students at public four-year institutions predominately attend full-time. To the extent that they work, studies show these generally more affluent students take positions that provide experience to advance their careers. Community college students, in comparison, work long hours in difficult jobs that make it hard for them to keep up with their studies.

Today community college students are out on the frontlines serving as medical assistants, grocery store clerks, and bus drivers. They worry about catching the virus, at the same time as they struggle to find laptops and internet connections so they can continue their courses online. Many must take extra shifts to earn a little more because a family member lost work. Circumstances differ, but even in normal times these students regularly find themselves in trouble after a car breaks down, a parent needs help with medical bills, or a landlord raises the rent. Too often, they can’t find a way to complete the courses they paid for that semester.

The financial footing of the state’s community colleges is just as fragile as the students they serve.

Prior to the Great Recession, state funding covered 46 percent of community college operating budgets. The most recent data for 2018 show state support at 38 percent of operating costs, or nearly $80 million lower than pre-recession levels. Per student, the annual state budget provides community colleges with just $3,041, compared to $8,833 for each student attending a four-year public college or university.

This per student resource comparison is critically important because community colleges must deliver far more intensive support to help students navigate life, complicated college and career decisions, complex financial aid packages, and the academic challenges of fast-paced college courses for which they are too often underprepared.

Massachusetts community colleges regularly grapple with providing sufficient resources to meet these needs without pricing students out.

At $6,580, tuition and fee rates at Massachusetts community colleges are among the most expensive in the country. Average tuition and fees now exceed the current maximum federal Pell grant ($6,195), which only the poorest students receive because the eligibility thresholds do not vary according to regional cost-of-living.

The high cost of tuition and fees is especially problematic because Massachusetts is also among the lower performing states in terms of contributing state financial aid. On average, US states devote 14 percent of their higher education expenditure to financial aid; in Massachusetts, financial aid amounts to just 6 percent of the higher education budget. This means that while US states spend nearly $900 per FTE on financial aid, on average, Massachusetts has just $300 per FTE available.

When students must use up all of their state and federal assistance to cover tuition and fees, they are left without funds for books, transportation, and living expenses.

In an extremely high cost state like Massachusetts, students and families find themselves in impossibly precarious positions.

The performance of community colleges must be viewed in this financial context. The most recent outcome data show only about one-in-five students attending a Massachusetts community college full-time earned a degree or certificate within three years of enrollment. This completion rate is lower than all but four states. While the share of part-time students earning a certificate or degree is much closer to the US average, only 10 percent of students had success in Massachusetts by this metric.

These measures are not perfect indicators of community college performance for various reasons, and too often critics use these figures irresponsibly to discount the value of the sector altogether. Those on the frontlines of this crisis will tell how mistaken it is to reach such a conclusion. Community colleges have trained the vast majority of the EMTs, fire fighters, nurses, nurse assistants, health care technicians, and radiologic technicians working desperately to save lives. As if to underscore this point, WGBH ran a piece last month on the 63 students completing the Respiratory Therapist program at Quinsigamond Community College this spring. Our hospitals urgently need these graduates to operate ventilators.

Still, no community college leader will dispute the fact that too many students do not achieve their goals and most embrace significant change.

With limited resources to fund Massachusetts’ progressive policies, it makes sense to focus more attention on the long overlooked and undervalued community college sector post-COVID-19.

Facing a $6 billion budget deficit, legislators have incredibly hard decisions to make. The challenge will be especially difficult given all of the incredible work that went into the passage of the Student Opportunity Act last year. The law is arguably the most progressive education funding package passed by any state legislature, and maintaining that commitment to under-resourced K-12 schools will require courage and creativity. It would be foolhardy to make this sacrifice without similar attention to public higher education.

A prudent four-pronged response:
First, provide an immediate infusion of flexible resources to put community colleges on firm financial footing as they respond to the crisis.

Dr. Pat Gentile, the president of North Shore Community College, pleaded for help at an emergency Board of Higher Education meeting last month. Experience shows that community college students are much more susceptible to “stopping out” when they lose momentum. If we don’t respond quickly, President Gentile fears a generation of students will disconnect, resulting in lost human potential and a devastating financial blow to colleges. Pairing state funds with federal stimulus dollars, we can provide a relief package that gives leaders wide latitude to implement strategies immediately that will keep as many students as possible on track.

Second, double down on Early College.

The American Institutes for Research recently released a policy brief summarizing a decade of work that provides conclusive evidence that giving low-income students the chance to earn a significant number of college credits while in high school can double post-secondary completion rates. While Massachusetts has been slower than leading states to grow the number of students participating in Early College, the Departments of Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education, together with their respective boards, have fashioned an unprecedented coordinated effort to ramp up high-quality programs. New funding through the SOA will provide a critical resource to support this work, but near-term budget uncertainty poses a significant threat. To assure post-secondary success for thousands of low-income students, the state should find a way to keep Early College expansion efforts on track.

Third, quickly craft a new program that allows more students who matriculate to community colleges to attend full-time.

Experimental research examining an initiative known as Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) demonstrates that this is one of the most cost-effective ways we can help students from families with limited means succeed. ASAP doubled completion rates at the City University of New York by providing students who agreed to go full-time with additional financial aid and intensive advising and support. Three community colleges in Ohio replicated this model and generated similar results, an extremely rare achievement for an intervention with impact of this magnitude. Community college leaders have wisely been advocating for funds to implement this type of program to Massachusetts students through a new SUCCESS Fund.

Finally, the state should overhaul the way it provides students with financial aid.
The Board of Higher Education recently committed to a comprehensive review of the state’s higher education finances. The coronavirus crisis and the economic restructuring it will trigger will almost certainly spur profound change in how students consume education. The state’s financing and financial aid practices must change in accordance to ensure that resources are distributed equitably and students who begin their post-secondary studies in community colleges can afford to continue on to state colleges and universities.

Massachusetts residents should appreciate the investments the legislature has made in recent years to combat inequality. In particular, the state’s commitment to healthcare access will undoubtedly save lives in this pandemic. But as Gateway City hotspots reveal, healthcare cannot provide upward economic mobility on its own. If we want a more equitable rebound than the very uneven recovery we experienced after the Great Recession, it’s time to give low-wage workers knocking on the door of the American Dream achievable pathways through community colleges and public higher education.

Meet The Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

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