It’s no secret that community colleges are particularly important to the educational and economic aspirations of minority Americans. According to a Pew study, as of 2010, 47% of less-than-four-year college entering freshmen were nonwhite, as compared to 38% of those entering four-year colleges.

And that’s why declining public support for community colleges, creating underfunded institutions even as tuitions rise, is a potential calamity for minority Americans.

Wonkblog‘s Dylan Matthews explains today that of all the factors contributing to higher tuitions for colleges, the decline in public support is most obvious with respect to community colleges:

Public community colleges, the largest category of higher education institution, have seen real, per full-time student spending fall from 2000 to 2010. So they’re actually spending less.

And yet, over that same period, community colleges saw tuition revenue per full-time student increase by about 40.7 percent in real terms. Perversely, the powers that be at community colleges have been cutting what they spend on students, and then making those students pay even more for a cheaper-to-produce product.

Obviously enough, the steady decline in public support (mostly from state governments) for community colleges needs to be reversed. But making sure community colleges get the most from their limited dollars matters a lot, too, which is why it’s important to begin getting a handle on their relative effectiveness and what separates good from bad institutions.

As noted on Monday, this year’s Washington Monthly College Guide includes, for the first time, rankings of the top 50 community colleges, along with features by Haley Sweetland Edwards on the worst of these schools and by Kevin Carey on the best.

This is an entirely appropriate challenge to consider on the anniversary of the March on Washington. The deterioration of what for many is the first rung on the ladder to upward mobility is a big deal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.