In this excellent article in the New York Times about the plight of community colleges, Ginia Bellafante shows the dramatic disparity in fund-raising between community colleges and other sectors of American education. The wealthiest benefactors and philanthropists shower millions on their alma mater, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but the alumni of community colleges are unlikely to be billionaires. The hedge funders shower millions on charter schools, but ignore community colleges, which serve twice as many students but are not as chic as charter schools.


And yet which institution is there for the least affluent members of our society? Which institutions offer a ladder into the middle class for children of poverty?


Bellafante’s article begins:


Last year at its annual gala, LaGuardia Community College, arguably the most ethnically diverse college in the country, honored Marilyn Skony Stamm, the chief executive of a global heating and air-conditioning business. A child of the South Side of Chicago who had gone to Northwestern on scholarship, Ms. Stamm maintained a committed interest in education and joined LaGuardia’s foundation board six years ago, proving herself a skilled networker for an institution with minimal capacity for soliciting money.


Occupying four buildings overlooking the elevated tracks for the No. 7 train in Long Island City, Queens, LaGuardia serves 50,000 students annually, many of them immigrants and more than two-thirds coming from families that earn $25,000 a year or less.


One of the first things you notice when you visit is the number of students pushing strollers or carrying babies. At the gala, Ms. Stamm was introduced by a woman whose story was dramatic in its particulars but familiar in its deprivations. Cast out of her house by drug-addicted parents, she had a son at 16, endured dialysis and a kidney transplant and was able to remain at LaGuardia — and eventually transfer to Smith — only because of a scholarship the foundation had provided.


In recognition of the evening, Ms. Stamm’s husband, Arthur Stamm, made a gift of $100,000. At the time, it was the largest gift the college had received from a single donor in its 42-year history.


Since January alone, by contrast, Duke University, which educates 14,850 students on its 8,709-acre campus, has received gifts and pledges of $1 million or more on the average of every six or seven weeks. In those gifts alone, the university has already raised about $49 million this year. And yet, according to the latest ranking, its endowment of close to $6 billion in 2012 did not earn it a place among the country’s 10 richest schools, a list led by Harvard, Princeton and Yale.


Educational institutions and services remain the second biggest beneficiaries of philanthropy in the country, after religious organizations, but little of the money flows to community colleges, the mostly public institutions that now enroll 45 percent of the country’s undergraduates, most of them poor or working-class and many of them requiring extensive remedial learning.


LaGuardia’s biggest challenge is the fact that it does not have a rich alumni base. Its graduates are working-class and middle-class.


The plight of community colleges has not captured the interest of the wealthy donor class, where the narrative of the young child plucked from poverty and channeled through a system that will get him to Princeton and repackage him in the image of his benefactors has proved to be so mythically compelling. In 2012, more than twice as much money — $297 million — was awarded to charter schools from the country’s largest foundations as was given to community colleges, even though two-year colleges educate nearly four times as many students.


“When I talk about community college to my friends, I see a blank look on their faces,” one of LaGuardia’s major donors, Lisa Selz, said. “It is so removed from the experience of so many people who don’t see that success can mean becoming a physician’s assistant.”


Recently, foundations like Gates and Lumina have directed some giving to community colleges, but it is  only a small fraction of what they give to higher education.


The story recounts the donors who were attracted to LaGuardia’s mission of serving the neediest students and the strategies they devised to jumpstart fund-raising.


As I read this story, I was reminded of something I heard in Finland, where all higher education is tuition-free. “Even graduate school?” I asked. My friend and guide, Pasi Sahlberg answered, “Education is a basic human right. We Finns don’t believe that people should have to pay for a basic human right.”