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Higher Education Characterized as Separate and Unequal

Just as the K-12 system uses Title I money to provide extra educational support for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, a new report calls for innovative programs and big changes in the way higher education is funded to create a more level playing field for students from poor and minority families.

The report, Bridging the Higher Education Divide, released today at the nonprofit Century Foundation was the result of work by a community college task force led by Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, and Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.

The group details the growing stratification in American higher education, with more low-income students attending two-year schools that have lower graduation rates, compared with four-year universities where students tend to be wealthier and more likely to complete. According to the report, financial support for community colleges has not kept up with the need, which the task force argues is greater because students generally do not enter as prepared academically as those at more selective four-year schools.

Students enroll in community colleges with high hopes, but often struggle. While about 81 percent of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor's degree, just 12 percent actually do so within six years, the report found.

Among low-income students with high academic qualifications for college, 69 percent who went to a four-year institution earned a bachelor's degree compared with 19 percent who started at a community college.

Campus diversity varies widely by the type of institution. The report finds that high-socioeconomic students outnumber low-socioeconomic students 14 to 1 in the most competitive four-year institutions, while low-SES students outnumber high-SES students in community colleges nearly 2 to 1. The report calls for four-year colleges to do more to reach out to more low-income applicants and for community colleges to try to attract students from more affluent backgrounds in an effort to diversify campuses.

Adding to the problem of completion at two-year schools is the lack of funding.

The report notes that community colleges received $8,594 per student in 2009 from federal, state, and local government sources, while public research institutions received $16,966. The amount of money spent on instruction at community colleges was about $5,000 per student in 2009, compared with $10,000 at public research universities and $20,000 at private research universities, the report says.

"A central problem is that two-year colleges are asked to educate those students with the greatest needs, using the least funds, and in increasingly separate and unequal institutions," the report says. "Our higher education system, like the larger society, is growing more and more unequal. We need radical innovations that redesign institutions and provide necessary funding tied to performance."

The report includes a number of proposed strategies to promote greater diversity across all higher education institutions and promote completion rates among disadvantaged students.

1. Adopt state and federal adequacy-based funding similar to that used in primary and secondary education, linking support with outcomes.
2. Establish greater transparency of public financial subsidies to higher education.
3. Encourage closer connections between community colleges and universities.
4. Take steps to improve transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions.
5. Encourage innovation in racially and economically inclusive community college honors programs.
6. Support more early-college programs that promote community college diversity.
7. Prioritize funding of new programs for economically and racially isolated community colleges.
8. Provide incentives for four-year institutions to engage in affirmative action for low-income students of all races.

"Efforts to make inequalities in higher education funding more transparent, coupled with legal and public-policy efforts to level-up public funding of community colleges, should make it possible to improve the quality of community colleges," the report concludes.

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