The Intersection

myFutureNC Blog Series: Research Review | The $78 Billion Community College Funding Shortfall

November 9, 2020

By Milagro Chavez-Cisneros, Policy & Research Intern, The Hunt Institute

As part of the myFutureNC blog series, we periodically share research on attainment to make connections between national work and our efforts here in North Carolina. Community colleges play a critical role in supporting progress towards the myFutureNC postsecondary attainment goal of two million North Carolinians holding a high quality degree or credential by 2030. The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a report on the revenue gaps between community colleges and public four-year institutions which identifies significant inequities and underscores the need for funding reform.

Community colleges offer an affordable pathway to a four-year degree and disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color. Despite their vital role in closing postsecondary attainment equity gaps, community colleges receive $8,800 less in education revenue per student than four-year institutions, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. Policy Analyst Victoria Yuen found that two-year community colleges receive two-fifths of the revenue that four-year institutions receive – $52 billion compared to $130 billion – even though they serve only one million fewer students. In total, this constitutes a $78 billion gap between community colleges and four-year institutions when accounting for tuition, grants and scholarships, state appropriations and local funding.

The $78 billion revenue gap results in a significant equity gap in postsecondary education as spending is tied to students’ ability to persist through college and graduate. Community colleges are more likely to serve students from lower-income backgrounds, first-generation college students, working parents, and underrepresented students in higher education. Community colleges with low revenue do not have the funding to spend on supporting the unique needs of every student.

The study identifies two main factors that drive this substantial revenue gap:

  1. Four-year institutions bring in more revenue through higher tuition and fees.
  2. Four-year institutions receive larger amounts of state appropriations than community colleges. Community colleges rely on grants and scholarships to provide critical revenue.

In North Carolina, the revenue gap between four-year institutions and two-year institutions per full-time enrolled student is $11,118 – higher than the national average of $8,800. North Carolina was one of 16 states the report identified as having a community college revenue gap that is largely driven by state appropriations, which comprise $5,523 of the gap, even though the state provides some of the highest state appropriations for its public four-year colleges. Local appropriations help narrow revenue gaps across the nation, including in North Carolina where community colleges receive more local funding per full-time student than four-year colleges.

In order to address the revenue gap and begin to approach equity between community colleges and four-year institutions, action is needed at both the state and federal levels. The Center recommends the following state- and federal-level policy changes to close the revenue gap:

  • Ensuring that any debt-free college plans include provisions to address resource equity gaps, not just replace tuition revenue
  • Providing federal grants to bolster institutional operating support based on student need
  • Reforming state appropriations to eliminate gaps in funding
  • Allocating more local funding for community colleges, especially in states that do not currently provide any local dollars to these institutions

In North Carolina, myFutureNC is taking a close look at the equity gaps in state postsecondary attainment and the recommendations made in this report are informative as we collectively work to identify ways to close the equity gap for community college students. Intentionally funding North Carolina’s community colleges is imperative as we work to support the needs of our diverse students and close the postsecondary attainment gap in the state.

Footnote: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist across the education continuum, including at the community college level. On Tuesday, November 10th from 1-3pm, The Belk Center for Community College Leadership at NC State University will discuss this topic at the 2020 Dallas Herring Lecture. This year’s speaker, Dr. Pam Eddinger, President of Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, will share her thoughts in her lecture, Insights from the Pandemic: The Reckoning and the Hope at Our Nation’s Community Colleges. To register to attend this virtual lecture, please follow this link.

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