$46,432 vs. $372 -- Community Colleges and Philanthropic Support

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Among many significant findings presented in a recent report from The Century Foundation Task Force on Community Colleges, there was one that truly surprised me: the difference between the average amount per full-time student of private gifts, investments and endowments given to private colleges ($46,432) and that which is given to community colleges ($372). The Task Force, of which I was a member, has called for radical innovations to help redesign and bolster community colleges, and also for the provision of necessary funding to bring about improved outcomes. There are many worthy and important policy recommendations in this report that I hope the educational, political and philanthropic communities will take to heart.

I was surprised by the difference in philanthropic support per student, particularly when one considers what community colleges accomplish every day and how important they are to the rebuilding of our nation's middle class. Growing inequality in higher education, as the Task Force report eloquently documents, is a threat to our future prosperity as well as our democracy. Investment in community colleges is investment in maintaining the American Dream. These colleges:

o Are effective in helping individuals secure middle-class wages and careers. The earnings for those with associate degrees are almost double those of high school dropouts ($37,604 compared to $21,651). Associate degree earners are significantly more likely to be employed than high school graduates and dropouts.

o Are equipped to provide training for the jobs of the future. It is estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of American jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Community colleges have also proven that they can adapt to the needs of industries in which job openings are likely to occur, such as healthcare, IT, and manufacturing.

o Can handle the volume. Community colleges now represent the largest single sector of American higher education, with 1,132 accredited two-year colleges enrolling 8 million students for credit and another 5 million for noncredit courses. They enroll nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates, and about half of all students at four-year colleges and universities attend community colleges prior to earning their degrees.

o Are the gateway to higher education for first-generation college students and minorities. In 2012, community colleges enrolled 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates and 42 percent of students who are the first generation in their families to go to college. Their open-door policies and affordable tuition make community colleges a more viable postsecondary option for many students, especially those from middle- to low-income families, veterans and women.

o Do more with less. Although they are faced with the challenge of teaching students who are under-prepared for college, community colleges received less state support per student than four-year schools. Over the ten-year period ending in 2009, all four-year schools increased their per-pupil total operating expenditures, while those of community colleges remained flat: a $13,912 increase as opposed to $1 at 2009 prices.

We can hope that the recent $25 million gift from the Stella & Charles Guttman Foundation to CUNY's new community college is an encouraging sign of things to come. There are many things that individual donors and foundations can do to help.

One is to make a pledge of financial support to your local community college and also ask others to do likewise. General support pledges, as well as capital and endowment dollars, are greatly needed. Gifts can also be targeted to specific education and training programs, such as nursing, or for student academic supports, such as career counseling or internships. Funds can be given as challenge grants (matching funds) that encourage other donors to give. Donors can give directly to community colleges, or establish low-cost administrative funds through local community foundations to help students.

Another way to help is by calling for state policies and programs that grow community college endowments and build their physical infrastructure. States and counties should create tax-incentive programs that encourage more donations to community colleges, particularly to endowments. The goal would be to level the playing field between under-endowed community colleges and better-endowed public and private four-year schools. States should provide additional tax-exemptions for community college endowment gifts. Even better, the state could match all or a percentage of a donation for an endowment, or up to a certain limit. States could also create a similar match and/or additional tax exemption for capital construction projects for community colleges to help solve the problem of over-crowded facilities and keep community colleges updated in terms of technology, laboratories, and specialized teaching facilities. Supporting a community college construction boom can yield additional benefits by creating jobs in the surrounding communities.

Community college leaders are doing their part to improve graduation and retention by maintaining access and connecting to the needs of our communities. It is clear that public dollars alone won't be enough to ensure that community colleges have the capacity to conduct the training or provide two years of transferable education that gives individuals the skills they need to qualify for middle-income and higher paying jobs. Community colleges need an influx of private support from those who understand the important link between middle class growth and postsecondary education and training. The economic recovery and subsequent strength of our nation is what's at stake here.

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