By Richard Vedder
The papers are full of news that community college enrollments are booming, suggesting this is a byproduct of an economic downturn. When times are tough, people go to Wal-Mart instead of Sak's Fifth Avenue, and to community college instead of four year universities.
The data suggest, however, that the trend to two year schools is more long-lived. Today's USA TODAY features a graph that shows that a majority of the increase in college enrollments since 1995 has occurred at the two year schools. This is in marked contrast to the picture from, say, 1975 to 1995, when the market share of community colleges was actually declining. Those schools were viewed as inferior, and as an increasingly affluent American population chose schools, they mostly wanted the qualitatively superior four year option. Community college market share fell for the same reason bus transportation was losing its market share --there were qualitatively better alternatives.
Why, then, the change since 1995? Two factors are relevant. First, while the cost of college has been rising generally, the increases are particularly profound at the four year schools, in my judgment because universities typically are deemphasizing undergraduate instruction and using incremental tuition funds to finance lower teaching loads, more administrative hires, more luxurious student facilities, etc. As the cost differential between two and four year schools grows, more are selecting the lower cost alternative.
Second, the dirty little secret in higher education is that the gains from going to college have stopped increasing altogether for women, and have slowed and arguably stopped for men, particularly when one considers the time to get a bachelor's degree today is more often five rather than four years --and many do not graduate at all. In short, the gains from going to college are not growing, and maybe even declining, while the costs of college continue to increase. The rate of return on private college investment is falling. More people, faced with the college decision, are compromising, going to two year schools knowing they have the option of switching to the more expensive four year alternative for the last two years (one of my Whiz Kids, Bob Villwock, has done precisely that, and very successfully).
When I was on the Spellings Commission, I argued that you could dramatically slow the growth in average college costs simply by increasing the proportion of students attending community colleges, finding myself often in agreement with the commission's sole community college member, Charlene Nunley. My support for non-traditional post-high school training has been enhanced by recent research that Gordy Ruchti has done for Andy Gillen and me for a new book, research that shows that an awful lot of the new jobs being created DO NOT NEED college level training. Further convincing me is Charles Murray's great new book, Real Education, which my friend Ben Wildavsky gave a lukewarm review of in yesterday's Wall Street Journal but which I think is brilliant, like such previous Murray books as Losing Ground and, with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve.
Community colleges are not perfect. They have extremely high attrition rates, they often have qualitatively suspect offerings, etc. But on the whole they are very much oriented towards undergraduate instruction, are relatively inexpensive, and lack the elitist superiority attitudes that dominate the four year selective universities. While I suspect the four year public schools on balance these days are anti-egalitarian and on net reduce equal economic opportunity in this country, that is clearly not the case with the community colleges.
Colleges are screening devices --separating the bright and motivated from the less bright and lazy. They are damnably expensive screening devices. The two year schools can help reduce the cost of screening, just as can alternative approaches, such as vocational certification/testing, on the job training programs, etc. Harvard may be number one in US NEWS's book, but I equally admire the Montgomery Community Colleges (the school my friend Charlene used to head) of the world --schools that make a difference in more people's lives --at less cost.