Community Colleges Offer an Upward Path to Needy Students. Will More Donors Pay Attention?

Recent gifts by Michael Bloomberg and Ron Perelman have raised a critical question across higher ed philanthropy: What’s the best way for donors to send economically disadvantaged students to elite institutions?

Bloomberg opted to allocate $1.8 billion for financial aid. Perelman is funding Princeton’s new residential college to house an expanded undergraduate population, and with it, more low-income students.

Meanwhile, though, a new report by the Lansdowne, Virginia-based Jack Cooke Kent Foundation points to a robust but frequently overlooked pool of high-performing low-income students: the nation’s 1,132 community colleges.

One of the foundation’s key areas of research is developing strategies for four-year institutions to increase access and success for community college transfer students. These strategies include strengthening partnerships with two-year institutions, identifying potential transfer students early, and supporting transfer students through degree completion.

The foundation’s new study, “Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions,” argues that community college students are a valuable yet untapped pool of recruits for “highly selective institutions” interested in “diversifying their student bodies by a number of factors, including socioeconomic status, first-generation status, or age.”

Consider two of the study’s key data points. First, community college transfers graduate at higher rates than students who enroll directly from high school at the nation’s top universities, as well as students who transfer from other four-year institutions. And second, community college transfers graduate in a “reasonable amount of time,” on average taking two and a half years to complete their degrees. However, “despite their high performance,” the report reads, community college students are “underrepresented at top colleges and losing ground. They transfer to top institutions at a lower rate today than they did 10 years ago.”

These statistics underscore an uncomfortable disconnect across the higher ed giving landscape. While funders who profess an interest in equity may be surprised to learn that community college transfers perform just as well as those who enroll directly out of high school, it’s certainly no secret that a disproportionate number of community college students hail from low-income households. Nor should funders need to be reminded that most community colleges, which serve 49.2 percent of the country’s college students, are woefully underfunded.

So why, according to the Council for Aid to Education, do only 1.5 percent of charitable gift dollars raised by educational institutions go to two-year institutions when colleges and universities raised a staggering $43.6 billion in 2017? Let’s explore a few theories.

Where’s the Love?

The most obvious culprit here is the fact community colleges don’t have a lot of rich alums—in contrast to Ivy League schools, private schools, and public four-year institutions, which reap most of their mega-gifts from incredibly wealthy graduates. 

There’s also the issue of perception, which, rightly or wrongly, can shape reality in higher ed fundraising. For many donors, most of whom did not attend community college, such institutions are but a stepping stone to the real thing: a residential four-year experience replete with ivy-strewn walls, $600 million “innovative residential colleges,” an environment of intellectual stimulation, and, if students are a lucky, a lazy river.

This isn’t to say we don’t stumble across an occasional large gift to a community college. A couple of years back, music industry legend Herb Alpert made a $10.1 million commitment to Los Angeles City College. Alpert wasn’t a graduate of the college.

Last September, Ventura College Foundation, which supports Ventura College, a state-funded community college with an enrollment of 13,763 students, received the largest gift ever to a community college in the cash-flush region of Southern California, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy Gift Database. The amount? $12 million from the estate of Miriam Schwab, a local philanthropist and longtime Ventura College supporter. She did not attend the college.

Schwab’s estate and Alpert may be on to something: Roughly one million students in the California Community College System receive free tuition under the system’s College Promise Grant, which waives enrollment fees for low-income students. (In contrast, Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion went to Johns Hopkins University, a school that currently serves roughly 200 low-income students who qualify for Pell Grants.)

Incidentally, California’s state’s community colleges have an even more important patron in new governor Gavin Newsom. His new budget calls for free community college for two years.

Insufficient Support Networks

Another reason that donors may not support community college is one that few would like to articulate in public. It’s the idea that since relatively few community college students successfully make the leap to four-year institutions, donors will get more bang for their buck by supporting students matriculating directly out of high school. Here, we can reference another analog in the higher ed space.

In a recent piece, I looked at historically tepid support for historically black colleges or universities—schools, which, just like community colleges, serve far more economically disadvantaged students when compared to “selective” four-year institutions. I noted that these students have a six-year degree-completion rate of 32 percent, compared with a 45 percent rate for black students at all kinds of institutions.

But this data, according to Ray Franke, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, doesn’t take into account systemic differences between students, including socioeconomic status or institutional disparities in revenues and wealth. Low-income HBCU students don’t have access to college-prep opportunities and the kind of financial safety nets available to their middle- and upper-income peers.

The same can be said for community college students. As the Jack Cooke Kent Foundation’s new report notes, only 33 percent of community college students actually transfer to a four-year institution within six years. But “for many community college students, failure to complete a bachelor’s degree is not a measure of their own academic ability, but rather the result of insufficient financial resources, transfer advising, and/or limited course planning.”

A Unique Set of Challenges

We also shouldn’t discount other factors that may inhibit community college students from transferring to a four-year institution in the first place, like the fear of amassing student debt, familial obligations, and a desire to remain close to home.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor, education policy expert and vocal critic of Bloomberg’s Johns Hopkins gift (it made her “sick to [her] stomach”) argues that more attention needs to be paid to the real-world challenges facing the millions of college students who aren’t attending leafy, affluent four-year institutions.

“The biggest issue is that people can’t afford to spend enough time in college to actually finish their darn degrees,” she says in a powerful piece by Ben Casselman in FiveThirtyEight, titled “Shut Up About Harvard,” which argues that society’s obsession with Ivy League schools papers over serious challenges facing a majority of college students. Summarizing Goldrick-Rab’s argument, these students, Casselman writes, “are working while in school, often juggling multiple jobs that don’t readily align with class schedules. They are attending part time, which makes it take longer to graduate and reduces the chances of finishing at all. They are raising children, supporting parents and racking up debt trying to pay for it all.”

All of which emphasizes the importance of both the Jack Cooke Kent Foundation report and last year’s report by the Aspen Institute titled “The Talent Blind Spot.” Equity-focused mega-donors can’t give to community colleges based on direct experience. They can, however, provide support after being convinced, thanks to an ever-growing body of research, that community colleges provide a rich talent pool of economically disadvantaged students who will thrive at elite universities.