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Community Colleges are Screwed: The Higher Education Wealth Gap

The chasm between rich and poor is seriously affecting public higher education, where 80 percent of our college students enroll.

You've probably heard about the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. We now rank 45th in the world in terms of income equality, sandwiched between the Ivory Coast and Uruguay. And the way America funds public education is no exception to this trend. According to a new study from a Washington think tank, higher education has never been more stratified.

Here are the facts: From 2008 to 2009, community colleges’ per-student spending shrank by $254, mainly because states and towns are broke. Meanwhile, appropriations to community colleges nationwide fell an average of $488 per student, so institutions made up some of the difference by raising tuition $113. At public research universities, net tuition increased by $369, but appropriations declined by $751 per student, and spending per student rose just $92. Private colleges, on the other hand, increased both tuition and spending per student.

"This is nothing new—when there's an economic downturn, states are harsh on public higher education," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "They see a lot of people who look like paying customers, so they figure they can let the customers pay more for the benefit of a degree."

Hartle says budget cuts disproportionately hurt the quality of education in community colleges, where more than 3.4 million young adults are enrolled. "Budget cuts might mean larger classes, fewer full-time faculty, shorter hours in the library, or it might be less frequent cutting of the grass," he says. "But community colleges are pretty bare bones. The vast majority of money they receive goes to academics," not to prettifying the grounds, sports teams, or other extracurriculars.

Experts across the country are blunt about their fears. "Eighty percent of college students are enrolled in public schools," Hartle says. "College has never been totally free, but in the past, the United States was fairly committed to help students who couldn't afford college. That commitment is eroding."

College enrollment is at an all-time high because of the recession, especially at community colleges, which enroll a high percentage of young people who can't otherwise find a job. Eventually, many families will decide they can't pay for college at all, and they're going to continue altering their choices based on the price of the school. This means fewer degrees for working-class people, a less educated workforce, and a cycle that perpetuates the already egregious wealth gap in our country.

"Most public policy decisions don't focus on what's down the road, but the fact is, we will not have the workforce we need to compete in the 21st century," says Hartle. "We're making this investment more and more expensive for individuals. Sooner or later, people will realize they just don't have the resources to make that investment."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Nick Bastian Tempe AZ

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