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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.

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.

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This story about college spending was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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