Brian Rosenberg, the former president of Macalester College, has a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education urging the Biden administration not to steer students towards public colleges generally and community colleges specifically. As he puts it,

“Policy that shifts students from institutions with higher completion rates to institutions with lower completion rates is clearly self-defeating.”

He singles out community colleges for particular attack, citing the IPEDS national graduation rate for community colleges of 27 percent, which he calls “a national disgrace.”

He goes on to attribute superior abilities to private higher education:

“… even when controlling for selectivity and level of academic preparedness, private four-year institutions graduate students at a higher rate than do public institutions: 67 percent compared with 61 percent. There are many reasons for this, but the difference has been persistent over time.”

Something didn’t smell right, so I hopped on over to the College Scorecard. Looking specifically at Brookdale, we see a “headline” graduation rate of 31 percent. But click on “graduation and retention,” and we see that after eight years, fully 59 percent of students have graduated, transferred or remain enrolled. If the difference between 61 percent and 67 percent is dispositive, then the difference between 31 percent and 59 percent should be game-changing. Yet, Rosenberg’s piece never even addresses the fact — well-known within the industry, and well documented through the Voluntary Framework of Accountability — that many community college students transfer prior to graduation and go on to get bachelor’s degrees. That’s why roughly 48 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates have community college credits. But the students who do that show up in our numbers as dropouts. That’s a case of measurement error. I would have expected a national figure on higher education policy to know that.

OK, one might concede, the gap is overstated. But there’s still a gap. What’s behind it?

Rosenberg assures us that the gap reflects statistical controls for selectivity — which we don’t have — and levels of student academic preparation. But it doesn’t reflect spending per student.

And this is where the piece moved from sloppy to offensive. Here’s Rosenberg’s take on institutional budgets:

“Take a badly underfunded public system, add thousands upon thousands of new students without a commensurate increase in resources, and the result is predictable. Given the catastrophes plaguing the budgets in many states and a long history of declining public funding for higher education, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that increased funding will keep pace with increased enrollment.”

The “given” in that paragraph is doing a lot of work. More money for publics would be counterproductive, he argues, because they don’t have enough money.


Meanwhile, assumed but unaddressed, private institutions have much more money. Why would that be?

Curious, I hopped back to the Scorecard. Let’s look at the numbers.

Brookdale: $7,987 annual cost

Macalester: $26,000 annual cost

Hmm. Could costing more than three times as much per year lead to more resources for supporting students? It seems possible. In fact, part of Rosenberg’s argument is that private colleges offer more in the way of “advising, student support services, student-faculty interaction, and many other factors that depend upon funding.” So new funding should go to the places that already have the most — “given” — and we should just accept the inevitability of underfunded services for underfunded people?

The one proposal he champions gives the game away. He suggests increasing the size of the Pell Grant. That’s a good idea, as far as it goes, but keep in mind how the Pell Grant works. For community colleges that charge less tuition than the maximum grant award now — as most do, including my own — the colleges themselves wouldn’t see any of that money. But for institutions with five-figure tuition, like most privates, that increase would find its way directly to institutional coffers. Well-funded colleges would get even more; underfunded colleges would get nothing. And policy wonks would take the results as confirmation that some places just aren’t worth helping.

I share Rosenberg’s observation that public systems, and particularly community colleges, have been scandalously underfunded for a long time. But you know what helps cure underfunding? More funding. Over the long term, of course, we need the kinds of structural change that help us break Baumol’s cost disease, such as moving away from denoting education in units of time. We could also start recognizing seamless transfer as a policy tool for lowering costs. We could look at inequity as a choice, rather than as a given, and we could decide to make a different choice. And we could seize a rare political moment to make a lasting difference.

Come to think of it, I’m floating a testable hypothesis. What would happen if every state and community college in America were funded equally on a per-student basis as their private counterparts? Let’s try it. Give it a few decades, and measure the results. If the existing gaps persist after decades of funding parity, I will personally buy Brian Rosenberg a drink. You have it right here, in writing.

It is not natural, normal, given or inevitable that private colleges have higher graduation rates. They have more money. That’s a political choice, and one that we could, and should, make differently. Our students are worth just as much as Macalester’s and should be treated accordingly. To give up now would be, as he put it, a national disgrace.