Stimulus for Community Colleges

by Harry on February 5, 2009

My colleague Sara Goldrick-Rab has a piece at Brookings arguing that the education money in the stimulus package should double funding for community colleges (from $6b to $12b) and should simultaneously add an accountability system, gather necessary data, and foster innovation. Here’s a quote, but read the whole thing:

Since 1974, only 149 new community colleges have been built, and many campuses today are bursting at the seams. While community college students tend to enroll part-time, even these students require space in which to learn. In the first two years, this spending would amount to just 1.4 percent of the proposed costs of the recovery package, and would support infrastructure upgrades that truly stimulate the economy. Over the longer term, it would add modestly to federal higher education expenditures, but would ensure that our nation realizes an economic payoff from increasing enrollments.

The federal government should not simply expand funding, but use these new resources explicitly to promote greater success for community college students. Colleges receiving enhanced funds would be required to track and report student results, such as completion of a minimum number of credits, earning a degree, and landing a good-paying job. Over time, a majority of federal dollars would be awarded based not on enrollment, but on colleges’ performance on these critical measures.



Ano 02.05.09 at 3:12 pm

I think this is a good spending priority. Nevertheless, this is shameless political opportunism! “Stimulus” is supposed to be temporary! This is not.


Harry 02.05.09 at 3:17 pm

From day one (the bailout of AIG?) they were inviting this sort of opportunism. At least this is opportunism in the benefit of the economy. And, to be fair, the academics trying to get this on the agenda aren’t in community colleges — in fact they are in a competing sector (competing for hand-outs, that is).


someguy 02.05.09 at 3:39 pm

I am way less sure about the money generating improved results but Community Colleges are fantastic on a number of levels.

The provide opportunities for continuing education, provide a great way for money conscious students to earn credits toward 4 year degrees and/or various Master’s programs, and provide a wide range of genuinely useful 2 year certificate programs.

You could probably spend the money on a lot worse.


Harry 02.05.09 at 3:41 pm

Oh, I’m sure we will….


beezer 02.05.09 at 4:21 pm

Community Colleges don’t graduate that many students in part because their students are often on their own and have to make a living. Plus, as soon as they learn enough at the College, off they go because they qualify for a better career–degree or no.

Funding based on outcomes, however, is a good idea. But don’t make graduation rates the end all and be all because the student profiles are much different than those at four year colleges.

And what’s with the comment “stimulus” is supposed to be temporary? Rebuilding our infrastructures is considered stimulus, yet that’s an effort that should be made at all times. It’s a never-ending reality. You replace plant and equipment regularly in private industry. Should that “stimulus” be done regularly? Of course.


Slocum 02.05.09 at 4:28 pm

Community Colleges don’t graduate that many students in part because their students are often on their own and have to make a living.

Another reason they also don’t graduate many students is that students also transfer out to 4-year universities. Such transfers should also be counted as successes in any measure of outcomes.


Matt 02.05.09 at 4:34 pm

An interesting article in the NY Times a few days ago about proposed reforms to the CUNY community college system (one of the larger in the country, I think) here:

Increased accountability sounds good but I suspect that the desired push towards full-time only students will hurt a lot of people who need to go part time. (My father, for example, graduated from college [not a community college, but the same principle applies] only after 6 or 7 years because he finished while going part-time while working full time and having 2 kids at home. If full-time was the only option I doubt he would have finished, but it made a huge difference to our family that he did.)


Sara Goldrick-Rab 02.05.09 at 4:43 pm


Thanks for the feedback, folks. A few comments, thoughts:

1. The full proposal recognizes the need for many cc students to attend part-time, not full-time. There’s no FT requirement imposed here. And we argue that aid should be available to more students, not contingent on half-time enrollment either.
2. Acknowledging that indeed cc’s have multiple missions– BA transfer, certificates, job placement, etc– the accountability measures we propose are multiple and schools can achieve success by demonstrating improvements in two or more areas– no need to embrace all 5 or 6.
3. I actually agree there’s a lot of opportunism going on, but can’t imagine anyone would accuse community colleges or their advocates of it– they’ve always gotten the short end of the stick, and are hardly those elite privates who are trying to claim the dollars for themselves. As for me, as someone noted, I sit at a public flagship that would LOVE to have the money (heck, I’d love to get a raise once in awhile too) but I would not suggest that’s where the money should go.
4. The changes we propose would have long-term implications– technological advancements and improvements in infrastructure will create change immediately, create jobs, and last for a long time to come. We see the stimulus package as step 1 of this effort, with more to follow in the next authorizations of HEA and the Workforce Investment Act.

Brookings should be putting up the full proposal within a week or two….


SamChevre 02.05.09 at 4:55 pm

I recommend reading suburbdad’s–a community college dean–blog.

I’m pretty sure he’d say that right now, operating funding would help much more than more buildings.


jeremy hunsinger 02.05.09 at 5:00 pm

I actually think this is the wrong model. I think we need to rethink community colleges. There are some manual skills that you need to be at the campus to learn, but much of the rest can be pushed online. The expansion of the bricks and mortar community college system seems a bit off to me, i’d say we need to give some money to transform the current bricks and mortar system into what they can best be used for, then spend much more money developing online instruction.


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 5:15 pm

I suspect 9 presumes rather more successful online instruction than is actually in existence.


Thomas 02.05.09 at 5:16 pm

I’m not sure we have the same concerns about accountability for outcomes in post-secondary education that we have for primary and secondary education. Students aren’t assigned to community colleges, and if these colleges don’t “work” in some sense, students wouldn’t go there.

I’m skeptical that focusing on the outcomes mentioned is really fair, and I’m not sure that the outcomes mentioned are relevant. Take completion of credits and earning a degree. Students often choose community college because it allows them to try out college level work without a substantial financial commitment. If we count people who do that and discover that college isn’t for them, will we see community colleges take steps to discourage those students from enrolling? And there are obvious SES differences between community colleges–some are suburban-based, others are urban, and the populations served are different. If there is an obvious and noncontroversial way of accounting for these differences, let’s hear it.

I’m skeptical of infrastructure-for-higher-education proposals in general, unless accompanied by a funding source for operations and upkeep.

I do think that community colleges could be a good source for temporary funding increases to help avoid cut-backs at a time when enrollments could be increasing.


Soren 02.05.09 at 5:40 pm


Online college is a disgrace. The tuition is the same, the level of academic rigor is much less, and the valuable professor – student and peer relationships that provide guidance or prevent burnout are completely absent.

It might be acceptable for a few assignments or a relativley unimportant course, but should never even (attempt to) approach a comprehensive college experience.


someguy 02.05.09 at 6:32 pm

“On funding, the federal government should double its current level of direct support for community colleges, from $6 billion to $12 billion, in order to account for 30 percent of their budgets. Resource needs, especially for infrastructure, technology, and faculty, are significant and pressing.”

That doesn’t sound like the money must be spent on infrastructure such as facility upgrades. It sounds like the money might be spent on such needs at the discretion of the college.

Hiring more faculty seems like operating funding to me.

Yeah, one of the reasons, I am way less sure about the money generating improved results, is that even defining improved results for Community Colleges is so difficult.

(After getting my 4 year degree, I took about 6 undergraduate CS level classes at my Community College, but got a certificate and more importantly job placement from a private company. And that might be an easy case to track.)

But this sounds like a decent way to burn money.


Martgin Bento 02.06.09 at 12:31 am

How much point is there at this point to coming up with new stimulus ideas? I mean this as a genuine, not rhetorical, question. I have some too, but it seems too late to add to this bill when we’re compromising with Republicans again. I suspect personally we’re going to see another stimulus though, possibly not by that name, because I think this will work halfway at best. So I think there may well be a point medium-term, but wonder if others do, or if we are just spinning our wheels.


greensmile 02.06.09 at 1:12 am

someone must have analyzed the payback to the nation that resulted from the GI bill at the end of WWII. Granted there were many other factors such as the US being the only major industrial nation with factory capacity in tact to meet the pent up and the war induced demands for goods…but for an economy to grow, plow boys and waitresses are not enough. My impression is that on the whole, the US economy soared in the immediate postwar decade in spite of the cessation of incomes via defense work.

Long way round but I am agreeing with Goldrick-Rab in her contention that educating the workers we have would be long term stimulus with some “shovel ready” potential, a much better quality of return than many other “priorities” being touted in Washington.


Martin Bento 02.06.09 at 2:18 am

All for increased funding, but I hope we don’t get so “outcome-based” that we lose some of the special value CC’s have. For example, I was considering enrolling to improve my skills in a foreign language. This would help me personally and professionally, but I have no need to bother with a certificate or degree, nor do I need to transfer to a University as I’ve already been to one. Also, if I decide to enroll in CC, I can just go do so, so it’s a great plan B for the unexpectedly unemployed. For a University, I have to apply well in advance.


JoB 02.06.09 at 12:30 pm

Martin, exactly! Most of these measurements are 100% conservative: they measure it the way that the current establishment believes it should be. This way they stifle all of the creativity and promote conformance to the standards of now (which are standards of people with nostalgia for their parents’ standards). Any place of education should be a place where novelty is created, new ways of getting away from the miseries that we’re still facing.

In the present case it seems specifically true that the conservative value of distrusting any individual initiative is dominant. There clearly is a fear that the people might want to learn things that are not giving ‘predictable’ returns to the economy.

It should not be part of a ‘stimulus’ because the underfunding of learning is permanent.


lt 02.06.09 at 1:36 pm

Martin –

To be fair, graduation rates at CCs are usually measured in terms of degree students, not people who take a course or two. Not that there aren’t plenty of other problems with the way outcomes are measured, of course.


jeremy hunsinger 02.06.09 at 3:29 pm

Obviously Soren, you have no idea about online education. Some of it, just like some f2f classes, suffers from quality issues, though I suspect if you compare the two sets of classes, online will have the lower percentage of classes with quality issues. I’ve both taken online degrees and taught in them at international research universities and R1 universities and the rigor and quality is there, my students usually say the quality and standards that I maintain in my online classes are above their normal work and i’ve several comments that have indicated that they thought my classes was what college should be.

As for your comment on student and peer relationships… again that is a bit ignorant of the level of support and interaction that students get from each other in relation to the course. Communities and support groups arise online and are successful online all the time, with very little coaxing students bond and develop the relationships necessary for success. I usually use an early group work assignment to encourage that, but anymore the students have already set up an aim group and have connected on facebook/twitter/etc. before the assignment starts. The space, the community, and the commonplaces are all easily constructed online and as best as anyone can tell there is no significant difference in learning outcomes, other than a generally higher retention rate for material in reading intensive online courses .


salient 02.06.09 at 5:31 pm

Obviously Soren, you have no idea about online education.

Jeremy, hassling someone over “ignorance” doesn’t help your cause. Care to explain how you’ve ensured the work you are receiving, for e.g. timed exams, is the students’ own and represents the knowledge they have command of without deferring to resources, e.g. the textbook, mid-exam?

Or perhaps you teach a humanities class in which referencing the text mid-exam is standard. That’s fine, but (1) it doesn’t explain how you ensure compliance with rigorous cheating/plagiarism codes, and (2) it doesn’t explain how instructors in other subject areas will ensure the performance results represent what’s in a student’s head, not their ability to cross-reference in a book or buddy’s head.


salient 02.06.09 at 5:40 pm

Communities and support groups arise online and are successful online all the time, with very little coaxing students bond and develop the relationships necessary for success.

I will additionally point out that what you’re implying with this comment reflects the thinking of a person who does not highly value the experience of relationships in real life, or who can’t grok the difference between meeting over coffee and meeting over Skype. (And even that’s assuming you require your students to engage video-chat for real-time lectures so that real-time interactivity is not lost.)

Suffice to say, most people feel stronger interpersonal connections and social obligations when working with real people, not screen names. Refer to xkcd for a visual aid. Sure, people can “get over” these interpersonal-communication issues and a good instructor lays down sensible rules for online discussion above and beyond those normally lain down for face-to-face discussions, but “possible to overcome some difficulties related to the online format” does not equate to “preferable format for instruction”.


Martin Bento 02.06.09 at 6:51 pm


Yeah, I know. I consider that a bug, though, not a feature. After all, casual attendance and enrollment is something CCs offer that Universities do not, and it’s not like classes can only have value when they are part of a defined set leading to some standard terminus. In fact, lots of Universities now have extension courses, which appeal largely because you can just go take them without it being something you planned well in advance and something you expect to take up the bulk of your time. If we’re serious about workers continually upgrading their skills, and we should be, we have to move away from the model of full-time school throughout youth and pretty much nothing thereafter.


Soren 02.06.09 at 8:37 pm

“Obviously Soren, you have no idea about online education. ”

I’ve taken online courses. I’ve also participated in plenty of online assignments and discussion activities to supplement my courses. None of these even come close to the stimulation provided and progress made in a real, live discussion oriented setting with a qualified professor and fellow students who are equally stimulated.

We’re comparing an academic video game with college. It’s no contest.

If your students enjoy it, that’s great. People learn in different ways. I’m just 100 percent glad I never chose such an isolated path.


Miguel 02.06.09 at 9:12 pm

I think criticisms of online education are misplaced. It is definitely the future of education. As the way we communicate changes there will be no need to actually occupy a given space to learn. Instant exchange with a professor will be easy and similar to live classes. There are some who say we won’t even need institutions of higher learning filtering out our educational communication. I have quite sipped that much of the kool-aid.

As of today online education isn’t as good as an IRL classroom experience but going to (Insert cardinal direct and state) University is not as good as going to Yale either. I still support state universities and more importantly community colleges.

I am happy to hear for more JC funding. If what we’re trying to do is create jobs and infrastructure there is no better placement for educational dollars than community colleges. They are the institutions that educate the people who build infrastructure.

Universities make bridge designers and Community colleges make bridge builders. Both are necessary and valuable.

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