Community College Economics for Policymakers: The One Big Fact and the One Big Myth

Jenkins, Paul Davis; Belfield, Clive

This paper reviews broad policy trends in postsecondary education, particularly as they apply to community colleges. The review juxtaposes one big fact and one big myth and shows how rejection of the former and acceptance of the latter have impaired policymaking. The one big fact is that the economic returns to college are very high. Although this fact is broadly acknowledged by many, it is underappreciated in policy discussion. The one big myth is that the college affordability crisis is actually an efficiency crisis caused by wasteful spending by colleges. Although widely accepted, this myth is based primarily on “sticker shock,” not evidence. The result has been reduced state funding and new practices (more adjuncts, larger classes, online courses) that cut spending and lower quality; the hope is that spending falls faster than quality so that efficiency will increase. These practices are especially detrimental for community colleges. Students at community colleges, particularly first-generation and low-income students, have less knowledge about the full set of benefits of college and are likely to be very debt averse; they are also less well prepared to navigate independently through college. The direction of policy should therefore be shifted. Students should be provided with more information about how to maximize their returns to college. Colleges should implement practices that enhance quality; spending will necessarily increase, but with genuine quality enhancements, efficiency should increase as well.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Community College Research Center
Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University
CCRC Working Papers, 67
Published Here
February 13, 2014