Report urges more funding for community colleges

The case for investing more resources in community colleges gets a boost in a new report that takes a global look at the financing of higher education.

The report – titled Cost, Commitment and Attainment in Higher Education: An International Comparison – says in order for the United States to become more competitive and its citizens more productive, more resources should be shifted toward getting students to complete two-year degree programs, or so-called “sub-bachelor’s” programs.

“One of the principal ways in which countries stimulate growth in attainment at relatively modest levels of cost and commitment is to invest more heavily in the sub-bachelor’s degree programs, which tend to cost less per student than bachelor’s degree programs,”  the report states.  It was funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education to provide a global perspective on its Making Opportunity Affordable initiative. The initiative is aimed at increasing productivity within American higher education. Jobs for the Future is a partner in the initiative.

The report also urges putting more efforts on getting students to complete the two-year degree programs once they enroll.

“Given that community colleges account for nearly half of the total enrollments in American education, one can reasonably conclude that low rates of graduation help to account for the very low levels of sub-bachelor’s attainment,” the report says. “Thus, a focus on improving the performance of community colleges seems well-merited.”

The report comes at a time when a growing amount of research points to how a growing amount of jobsrequire more than a postsecondary education.

In many ways, the report – authored by Arthur Hauptman, an independent public policy consultant, and Young Kim, a research associate at the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education  – echoes one of the key themes in a new book titled Global Development of Community Colleges, Technical Colleges, and Further Education Programs. A key premise of the book is that the well-being of a nation is more dependent on the education of its common folk than it is on the education of its elite.

Four-year universities and all the research and development they do are critically important, concedes the book’s editor, Paul Elsner, chancellor emeritus of the Maricopa County Community College District and a member of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

“But if you’re looking at the aggregate welfare of the state, the competitiveness of our young people and returning adults, that cohort is more of a factor of how people are going to participate in the global economy, stay competitive and be well-positioned in the world,” Elsner said.

The report produced for Lumina is rich on facts but also rife with caveats, such as the limitations in doing international comparisons due to differences in the economies of various countries. On the facts side, the report notes how, among nations that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks first in cost for, as well as commitment (the total amount of public and private resources) to, higher education in the world, although the overall share of its GDP is roughly average. However, when it comes to degree attainment among young adult workers (ages 25-34), the United States ranks sixth, and the overall rate at which its citizens earn “sub-bachelor’s” degrees is ninth in the world and slipping.

The report was discussed at a recent forum titled “Getting to Work: The Tough Journey of Getting to More Postsecondary Degrees,” held at the Center for American Progress. One criticism of the report was that its recommendation to expand “sub-bachelor’s” programs might get more support if they were not referred to as “sub-bachelor’s” degrees but associate or two-year degrees. 

Besides calling for more resources for community colleges, the report recommends:

  • Reducing the time it takes to earn a degree by turning four-year degree programs into three-year programs, as have Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
  • Increasing degree-completion rates, such as by providing incentives to institutions that increase degree-completion rates. Denmark, for example, uses graduation measures in its funding formulas – an idea that is beginning to garner attention here as well. 
  • Relying on the private sector to foster growth, such as Korea and Japan, which the report refers to as “prime examples of industrialized countries that have relied on expansion in private-sector institutions to fuel growth in participation and attainment.” – Recruiting more students from abroad. 
  • Increasing tuition in the public sector – the one idea that is least likely to win acceptance at a time when tuition costs are already being bemoaned as sky high. The report says raising  tuition costs will allow for higher student enrollment by giving universities more resources to expand. 
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