tc columbia

Efficiency Gains in Community Colleges: Two Areas for Further Investigation

By: Clive Belfield

The community college sector has come under increasing pressure to become more efficient—that is, to improve quality without spending more. The sector has responded, and over the past decade, per-student expenditures have fallen by one-tenth and enrollments have increased by over one-third. These changes have primarily affected the deployment of instructional personnel.

This paper reviews two mechanisms by which deployment changes might affect efficiency—via an increase in contingent faculty (labor productivity) and an increase in class size—and one mechanism to address enrollment expansion—an increase in college size. Community colleges have relied heavily on these mechanisms over the last decade with the expectation that they would generate efficiency gains.

It finds that for the first two mechanisms the evidence is far from conclusive that efficiency gains result. However, the case for increasing class size appears plausible based on general and related evidence. The evidence on college size is more robust but it too yields little hope for genuine efficiency gains. Given colleges’ reliance on these mechanisms, and given the low likelihood of efficiency gains in other ways, further research on the first two mechanisms—increasing faculty productivity and class size—should be a priority.