Students are getting the message that a college education is a necessary prerequisite for a middle class life. Today, more than 85 percent of high school graduates eventually make their way to college. But much of the increase in college-going isn’t at traditional four-year universities with grassy quads and intellectually stimulating seminars. Instead, the nation’s community colleges are absorbing the largest chunk of the new students.

Interactive chart by Jill Barshay using data from Trends in College Spending 2003-2013 by the Delta Cost Project. All dollars adjusted for inflation to 2013 price levels. Education-related expenses per student include outlays for instruction and student services plus a pro-rated share of academic and institutional support and operation and maintenance.

The nation’s community colleges educated roughly 745,000 more students in 2013 than they did five years earlier, for a total of 6.9 million students, according to the most recent data from the Delta Cost Project, a research group within the American Institutes for Research that tracks university finances. Public four-year institutions added about 575,000 students during this same five-year period, the data show, and private colleges and universities added a little less than 250,000.

Yet, those absorbing the most students spent less on them. In the appendices of the Delta Cost Project’s latest report, it shows that community colleges spent $10,804 per student on education in 2013, $531 less per student than in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, the most elite public universities, along with all categories of private four-year universities, increased their education spending during these five years. Large four-year public universities with faculty that conduct research spent $404 more than in 2008, for a total of $17,252 per student. Most private universities increased their spending by more than $900 per student during these five years.

“The institutions that are serving the most students spend the least on their education,” said Steven Hurlburt, co-author of the report, “Trends in College Spending: 2003-2013,” released earlier in January 2016. “That has been true, but it’s more true now.”

The 2008 recession ended up increasing this gap between the haves and the have-nots for two reasons. Jobs were scarce and more young adults on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder —  who, in a stronger economy, might have obtained blue collar or service-sector work — decided to go to school. Community colleges, with their open enrollment policies, took them in. At the same time, cash-strapped state legislatures cut funding to public colleges and universities.

Elite flagship universities responded by raising tuition, thus increasing the financial burden on students or their families. Tuition covered 62 percent of the cost of educating a student at public research universities in 2013, up from 51 percent in 2008.

Community colleges also increased tuition to replace taxpayer support. But they largely cater to low-income  students, nearly half of whom come from families that make less than $25,000, according to the Community College Research Center. So community colleges couldn’t fully replace the shortfall by raising prices. Instead they had to educate more students with less money.

“This, fundamentally, is really the issue,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College).  “All the focus on free community college — it helps get students into the door. But the question is whether community colleges have the resources to provide a minimum quality education.”

On average, tuition covers only 38 percent of the cost of educating a community college student. Jenkins says community colleges have been cutting corners by increasing class sizes, using more part-time faculty and having students take more online classes. “They have to do it on the cheap,” said Jenkins, adding that faculty and advisors are exhausted from teaching and counseling too many students. “Frankly, it’s bad for student outcomes.”

In theory, community colleges could stop enrolling everyone who signs up. But Jenkins says it’s fundamental to the mission of community colleges to take all who come.

Jenkins argues that policy makers need to invest more in the colleges that serve the most disadvantaged students, and that it’s a good return to taxpayers in the long run, when community college graduates earn higher wages and cost welfare and criminal justice systems less. Already with the improving economy in 2013, the Delta Cost Project noted that state legislatures were starting to increase appropriations in higher education again.

But Jenkins also says that community colleges need to be held accountable for their low graduation and high dropout rates, and cannot expect policymakers to write them a blank check. He hopes that more community colleges will figure out how to put students on clear paths to degrees, with skills that employers want.

As an outside observer, I find it tragic that the rich-poor divide is growing larger among our nation’s colleges. Arguably, low-income students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, need more resources than their wealthier peers.

Fortunately, some of the financial pressure on community colleges is easing. With the improving economy, more and more young adults are returning to the workforce. The National Student  Clearinghouse Research Center reports that student enrollments at public community colleges have fallen for two years straight since 2013, to 5.9 million students. That should help raise per-student spending at community colleges a bit, but it remains far below what wealthier students at four-year colleges are getting.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.