Separate and Unequal in Higher Education

06/12/2013 09:59 am ET | Updated Aug 12, 2013

It's been almost 60 years since the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education led to the dismantling of segregated schools in the South. While legal segregation was halted, public schools especially in large cities have become increasingly segregated by circumstance. Now higher education is under scrutiny for having established a segregated system, this time primarily by socio-economic status.

While undergraduate higher education in the U.S. can be parsed in a variety of ways, the biggest division is between the growing community college segment and that of four year public and private universities and colleges. Surprising to many, community colleges enroll 45% of all undergraduates and that fraction is growing. Moreover, the majority of all black and Latino undergraduates are enrolled at community colleges.

Compared with students at senior institutions, community college students come from markedly poorer families. The details are documented in new research, Bridging the Higher Education Divide, by The Century Foundation. The report's conclusion is clear: four year colleges, especially the elite privates, draw primarily from the top income brackets, while community college students come primarily from lower income groups. And since 1982 the gap is widening with fewer community college students coming from the top fourth of the income scale.

Moreover, community colleges are neglected when it comes to federal and state funding. Thus expenditures by the federal government go primarily to private and public research institutions and state support per student is typically higher at state universities compared with community colleges.

This discrepancy of funding is compounded by the ability of four-year colleges and universities to charge higher tuition. This reinforces the wealth-based nature of the higher education system. Higher charges at four-year colleges limit access to those without wealth, and the preponderance of students from wealthier families allows four-year colleges to charge more.

Since tuition and government support is higher at four year compared to two year colleges and highest among the most elite colleges, greater expenditure per student inevitably follows. The pattern overall is remarkably clear: according to The Century Foundation Report, educational expenditure per full-time equivalent undergraduate student in 2009 was $10,242 at community colleges, $12,363 at public masters colleges, $15,919 at public research colleges, $16,810 for the private masters institutions, $21,392 for the private bachelor's schools, and $35,596 for private research universities.

And if we look at expenditure per student, not expenditure per full-time equivalent, the effect on community colleges is more dramatic since so many of their students go part-time. This is an important distinction. Instructional costs could be reasonably measured by the somewhat fictitious full-time equivalent, a student who takes 30 credits per year or 15 credits per semester. However, the cost of other services to students - library, counseling, advising, registration, financial aid assistance, tutoring - are proportional to the number of actual students. So the use of full-time equivalents undercounts the cost to community colleges while providing a benefit for the most elite institutions whose students can afford and attend full-time.

We have yet to arrive at the most important point from an educational perspective: for a variety of reasons community college students are as a whole weaker academically than four year college entrants. This does not mean that community college students are incapable of learning or performing at high levels. To do so, however, community college students require more, not less, academic help and guidance than those at senior institutions. Unfortunately and tragically for these students the segregated system of American higher education is constructed so that they receive inadequate and insufficient academic support for their needs.

Thus it is clear: higher education is a divided system with two major components: community colleges and four year colleges and universities. But it is also an unequal system. Higher education is separate and unequal, a circumstance that has significant consequences for individuals as well as the nation as a whole.