Across the US, the pandemic hit community colleges hard. Enrollment is down and institutions have reduced staff and payroll. And while community colleges are heavily integrated into their local and regional education and workforce development fabric, federal policy is critical to sustaining and advancing these institutions. On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, Fellow Rebecca Natow explains how federal support promotes equity, accessibility, and opportunity in community colleges and how that support is evolving under the Biden administration.


Rebecca Natow, fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government & assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, Hofstra University

Learn More:

Federal Policy on Community Colleges: Presidential Priorities and Policy Tools

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Alexander Morse  00:01

    Hi and welcome to Policy Outsider, presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Community colleges play an important role for continuing education and helping meet workforce demands. However, community colleges across the nation are facing a number of challenges, including declining enrollment, and reduced staffing and payroll. Following up on a recent Rockefeller Institute analysis, Rebecca Natow, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University, joins the podcast to discuss the latest trends facing community colleges. What are some of the factors that are stressing community college operations, and what federal and state policy programs and proposals currently exist to provide additional support in an effort to help meet the needs and services of local communities. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse  01:12

    Hi, Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us today.

    Rebecca Natow  01:14

    Thank you so much for having me.

    Alexander Morse  01:15

    In your latest piece for the Rockefeller Institute, you looked at the national trends facing community colleges including enrollment decline, staffing challenges and a history of funding sources. Your piece examined how federal policies traditionally been used to support community colleges, and what President Biden is trying to do now to further support community colleges nationwide. So to kick off our conversation, why don’t we start with some of the different roles and services that community colleges provide?

    Rebecca Natow  01:44

    Sure. And that’s a great question, because community colleges actually play a number of different roles, all of which are important, and I will describe each of them. But first and foremost, I think it’s important to note that community colleges are public educational institutions that are specifically designed to serve their local communities. And they do this in a number of ways. The first is that they provide broad access to education within their communities. And they do this by making their admissions, mostly non selective. They also have a relatively low tuition rates, which makes community colleges widely accessible to students, even if, for example, their grades or test scores at the secondary level, we’re not the greatest if they can’t afford the tuition price of a four year institution, community colleges would be an attractive alternative. Some states even have promise programs, which makes community college tuition free, often with some conditions attached. But the low or no tuition and generally open admissions make community colleges highly accessible educational institutions. So that’s their open access mission or their broad access mission. A second but related role of community colleges, they provide academic preparation. So for example, this would include preparing students for college level work if they come into the community college academically underprepared and not testing quite up to college level. They might, for example, enter a developmental education program. And those programs are designed to help the students get their skill levels up to to college level. So that’s another way that community colleges academically prepare students. There’s also the academic preparation of high achieving students, for example, in community college honors programs and other programs that are on the transfer track. Every year students transfer into four year institutions, and that includes large public flagship institutions. It includes Ivy League universities and other elite universities, and any other number of four year colleges and universities across the country. So the academic preparation mission of community colleges is very important as well. Another function is workforce education, meaning that community colleges provide vocational education and career relevant training that is deemed important for workforce development needs. So they might for example, partner with local employers or regional employers or industries to determine what types of training employees need, what types of skills are in demand, and provide that training to their students. And finally, there’s the important community service mission of community colleges, which includes, for example, providing community education or continuing education programs for non matriculated students, and also offering campus facilities for community use. An example of this was when community college campuses served as sites for testing and vaccination during the COVID 19 pandemic. So there are a lot of different important and essential roles for community colleges.

    Alexander Morse  04:44

    There are a lot of broad different services that are attractive to maybe a number of different types of students or candidates. What are the student body demographics that community colleges typically serve? I know you mentioned that there are some who might not be academically prepared for a four year university or those who are maybe looking for like workforce development kind of trade schools? Are these students, typically, right after high school? Are they younger or older? Part time, full time?

    Rebecca Natow  05:12

    Yeah, so that’s a really great question and a great point because there is no typical community college student. Community College student bodies are very diverse. They intend to enroll lots of different students at many different stages of their academic careers, including students who are just exiting high school and students who have been out of high school for a long time. So it’s important to know there’s no typical community college student, a community college student, for example, might enroll in a developmental education program. If they aren’t academically prepared, they might enroll, they might be a high achiever enrolling in a community college Honors Program. Often students will enroll in a community college because their employer wants them to gain particular skills that are deemed important. Community colleges often enroll a lot of non traditional students or students who are who are older than the traditional college going age and they have families and jobs and other obligations, that in addition to just being a student, that the colleges need to be mindful of. Community colleges, they will often enroll students who are located near the college. So again, that community service mission providing education for people within their communities. But again, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes students will travel to a community college if they have a particular program that’s desirable. And one example that I like to give is the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, which is a community college as part of the SUNY system. And it draws students from all over who want to study design and fashion and related programs. So when discussing the kinds of students who attend a community college, I think it’s very important to understand that they’re very diverse student populations. But again, there’s no typical community college students.

    Alexander Morse  06:54

    Well, thanks for that answer. It sounds to me like community college can really serve as like a springboard for a lot of different populations.

    Rebecca Natow  07:03

    Absolutely. And a lot of… springboard also to a lot of different types of further education as well beyond the community college.

    Alexander Morse  07:10

    So as I mentioned, that your recent use of the Rockefeller Institute looks at how community colleges have been supported financially. Can you break it down a little bit for us?

    Rebecca Natow  07:19

    Yes. So this is a way that community colleges are somewhat unique in that they received funding, not just from a number of different sources, but from different levels of government. receiving funding from a lot of different sources isn’t in itself unique because of course, higher education institutions of all kinds received funding from different sources. But in the case of community colleges, they received funding from the federal government, the state government, and even the local government as well. There are certain local regions, localities that have some tax revenues that are available for community college funding. There’s also funding that comes from external sources. At community colleges this will often be contracts with business and industry. They might have, for example, a corporate partner that’s seeking training for their employees in particular skills. And there’s also a lot of vocational education funding that comes from the federal government from the Perkins Act. So there’s a lot of different resources that all go into funding community colleges. Then of course, there are tuition and fees. I mentioned previously, that community college tuition is relatively low, but tuition and fees that are paid by students are also an important source of funding for community colleges.

    Alexander Morse  08:32

    So it’s a pretty intricate network of different funding streams from federal, state, local government, public private partnerships, and then user fees as well.

    Rebecca Natow  08:40


    Alexander Morse  08:42

    So you also looked at in your piece, the some of the immediate challenges that are facing community colleges on a national level, which includes declining enrollment, and there’s a an issue with reduced staffing and low payrolls, perhaps. Can you go in a little bit more detail at what are some of the factors contributing to some of these problems?

    Rebecca Natow  08:59

    Yeah, so those are the two major challenges. I think right now facing community colleges, both declining enrollment, and reduced staff and payroll. And those two challenges are closely related to each other. Part of the reason that there are declining enrollments and community colleges, is that right now, there are simply more people in the workforce. When there’s a lower unemployment rate, there tends to be less enrollment in higher education and community colleges in particular. It leaves less time and less inclination when people are actively employed to pursue that post secondary education. Related to that, there’s an increased skepticism that higher education is necessary that it’s worth the time and the financial investment that it requires. So this is not something that’s unique to community colleges, but a lot of times community colleges are affected by the skepticism uniquely, because students who would attend community colleges are finding that they’re getting the skills that they need on the job or maybe their employer is providing some sort of professional development on the job and they don’t need to enroll. In a community college to sort of upgrade their skills. Because there’s declining enrollments and other types of higher education institutions as well. There’s increased competition among the different institutional types. So it wasn’t always the case that for example, four year, public four year, even private four year institutions would be competing with community colleges for the same pool of students, but when all institutional types are facing declines and enrollments, as a lot of them are right now than that competition becomes more intense. There’s more competition among different institutional types for the same pool of students. There’s also lingering effects of the pandemic. Yes, community college enrollments were down before the pandemic, but they did drop steeply during the pandemic. And that may be due to the types of students who would be more likely to attend a community college, including students who are working full time students who have young children or their caregiving responsibilities. Maybe they didn’t have the technology, they didn’t have access to the technology that was needed to access their classes during the pandemic when things were being offered online. And once people stop out of college, it’s often very difficult to come back into it, to get back into the student mindset and reenroll. So a lot of students either don’t reenroll at all, or it takes them quite a while to get back into into being a student again. So these are some of the reasons why Community College enrollments in particular have dropped over the last several years. You also mentioned the challenge of reduced staff and payroll. And that’s related to reduced enrollments, because when enrollments are down, community college revenues are down, so they’ve had to make cuts to human resources and reduce their staff. And as a result of that, the administrators and staff who are still working at community colleges are finding that they have a lot more on their plate, they are often doing the jobs, multiple people, and they’re only one person and they’re only receiving compensation for one person. So this poses a lot of hardship in terms of burnout and lower morale in general among community college staff.

    Alexander Morse  11:57

    President Biden has campaigned on free tuition for community colleges. And so I’ve got a two part question here. First is what’s the current state of that policy proposal? And how is that type of proposal a free tuition intended to help community colleges face some of these immediate challenges?

    Rebecca Natow  12:16

    Yeah. So I want to start by saying that President Biden has been a longtime supporter of community colleges, and so has First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who has worked at community colleges for many years. And together, they’ve been big supporters going back to their time in the Obama Administration of community colleges and the federal funding for community colleges. As you mentioned, President Biden campaigned on a tuition free community college policy, and that was something that he wanted to include in federal social spending packages since the beginning of his presidency. Unfortunately, his tuition free community college plan did not make it into the final spending legislation in either 2021 or 2022. There just wasn’t enough support among members of Congress for such a large and expensive policy. But President Biden has not given up on this plan. He mentioned tuition free community college in his State of the Union address earlier this year. And it is once again included in the President’s budget proposal this year. It’s still very unlikely that a large federal tuition free community college policy will receive the level of support needed to get through the current divided congress. But there was another item included in Biden’s budget proposal a smaller item that might have a better chance of passing because it’s a competitive grant program that would allow states and individual community colleges to apply for funding to make certain programs tuition free if they meet certain requirements or certain workforce demands that the federal government deems important and the reason I think that might have a better chance of passing is because it’s much smaller, it wouldn’t cost as much and it would be awarded on a case by case basis in particular situations.

    Alexander Morse  14:00

    Is there evidence that free tuition program or these piecemeal approach to identifying workforce needs going to increase enrollment at community colleges?

    Rebecca Natow  14:10

    Yes, it’s certainly likely that a federal tuition free community college policy, even on a smaller scale, would increase enrollments at community colleges. And the evidence for this is because there have been some state level as I mentioned previously, some state level promise programs that made community college tuition free at the state level and so researchers have been able to study those policies to see their effects on enrollment. And a number of previous studies have found that tuition free promise programs did increase enrollments at community colleges. They did increase the enrollment of students from underserved communities at community colleges. So it’s likely that making even more community colleges tuition free through a federal program would have the effect of increasing enrollments at community colleges. With more enrollments, there’s going to be more funding coming into the colleges and that would provide a need for increasing staff and increasing payrolls and bringing back more administrators to take on the work that right now are being done by a relatively small number of administrators on the community college campuses.

    Alexander Morse  15:13

    What are the costs of such a policy proposal, whether it’s federally free tuition or maybe some of the the smaller program?

    Rebecca Natow  15:21

    Right, and this is the this is, I think the biggest argument that the Biden plan has received in opposition to it is that it would be a quite expensive policy. There would be a substantial price tag for the government to fund tuition free community college. For example, the tuition free community college plan that President Biden endorsed earlier in his presidency would have cost over $100 billion, according to some estimates, other estimates identified an even higher price tag for that plan. And the high cost of providing free community college at the national level was one of the main talking points that opponents used to argue against the policy, why they couldn’t rally enough support to get it even included in the in the spending bills. The smaller scale plan would cost less because it is smaller scale, but then its impact would be substantially lower as well.

    Alexander Morse  16:12

    Well, thank you for wrapping all that up, Rebecca, and kind of summarizing what community colleges mean to local communities what the interplay between federal, state, local governments and private industries. Do you have any final words that you want to talk about maybe some policy recommendations you want to sign off with?

    Rebecca Natow  16:29

    Yeah, I want to say that I think community colleges and all institutions of higher education, but particularly community colleges, because they seem to be going through some particular challenges at the moment, do have a lot of work to do as they look to the future. The challenges they’re facing with enrollments and declining revenues, they’re not going to go away anytime soon. There’s this increased skepticism, as I mentioned before, about whether college is even necessary, and that’s not going to go away anytime soon, especially as the price of college, a college education continues to rise. And there’s going to continue to be increased competition for other types of, from other types of educational institutions, as the pool of potential students and potential applicants continues to shrink. So I think that community colleges should really lean into their strength. And this goes back to what I was talking about at the beginning of our interview today, of community colleges really serving their communities educational needs, whether that be providing broad access to education, community education, working with business and industry in the region to partner with them for workforce development training. Community colleges should also look to our federal sources of revenue. I mentioned Perkins funding for vocational programs, there might be this competitive grant for community colleges, depending on what happens with with the budget bill, the spending bill. And there’s other opportunities for federal and state grant funding as well. So community colleges should really develop their capacity to seek grants and to administer grants and to know what grants are out there and to apply for them and see how they can help the students and help the institutions. I think community colleges are also in a really unique place to really leverage educational technology to provide distance learning programs for students who cannot attend classes in person, the non traditional students, students with caregiving responsibilities, and also students who can’t access the technology, help them access the technology. Work with local officials to for example, make sure that broadband is universally accessible and that students can get the actual hardware and software and internet access they need so that they can get onto the computer and get into the distance learning programs. Students, a lot of students also need dependent care whether it’s child care, elder care, they need help for these caregiving responsibilities that they often have so that they can focus on their studies, whether it’s to attend classes or to participate in a distance learning experience. Again, it’s very important to work with public officials to get these policies in place so that community colleges can better serve their own communities.

    Alexander Morse  19:13

    Thanks again to Rebecca Natow, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and assistant professor of educational leadership policy at Hofstra University, for sharing insights into the current community college landscape and the different policy proposals designed to support community colleges. You can check out her recent analysis titled “Federal Policy on Community Colleges: Presidential Priorities and Policy Tools,” by visiting our website. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcast. Transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Heather Trela, Brian Backstrom, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse  20:21

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at Rock or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]

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