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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 June 15 - 12:00 am

Squeezed In the Sunshine State

Miami Dade College rests uneasily atop several of the categories covered by Community College Week’s annual Top 100 Associate Degree Producers rankings and analysis.

In 2007-08, the college of 170,000 students, awarded 7,047 associate degrees, ranking second only to the online behemoth the University of Phoenix.

Miami Dade ranked first in the number of degrees awarded to members of minority groups, with 5,776. It awarded the most degrees to Hispanics (4,325) and African Americans (1,341). It conferred more liberal studies degrees than any other college (5,580).

Miami Dade has company in Florida. Four other Florida community colleges join Miami Dade College among the top ten associate degree producers across all academic disciplines. It’s a statewide trend being fueled by the push for four-year degrees at community colleges, rising tuition and enrollment caps at the state’s universities and an economy that’s been pummeled by job losses.

But if Miami Dade leads the way in awarding associate degrees, the college recently earned another, less desirable distinction. Caught between sharply rising enrollments and vastly shrinking resources, Miami Dade slashed its budget more drastically than any of its brethren, in the process virtually capping enrollment, laying off staff and eliminating academic offerings on a scale unprecedented in the school’s 50-year history.

Longtime college President Eduardo Padrón is downcast in the Sunshine State.

“Rough is an understatement,” he said of the cuts. “We are suffering from severe underfunding. That’s nothing new. But this is worse than I’ve ever seen it. Enrollment is growing fast, but we can’t keep up.”

Padrón spoke shortly after announcing $15 million in budget cuts for the fall term, which means that 111 administrative and support staff workers will be laid off; 86 vacant positions won’t be filled; and non-personnel spending on things like maintenance and library books will be cut by $2.7 million.

The college also cancelled all of its Open House registration events at its eight campuses. There was no sense, Padrón said, to open the college’s doors to a new group of students when they would have a small chance of landing a seat in a classroom in the fall. The college estimates the budget-cutting means that 30,000 students will not be able to take classes they need, and another 5,000 prospective students will not be shut out of the college altogether.

“It was a very difficult choice,” Padrón  said of canceling the open house events. “They are a great resource. But we need to keep ourselves honest. It’s not fair to mislead them.”

Community colleges across the country are being squeezed as the economic recession swells enrollments and shrinks resources. Colleges have increased tuition, trimmed spending and scrounged for other sources of revenue.

But nowhere is the situation more acute than in Florida, where state support for the state’s 28 community colleges has been shrinking at alarming rates. As never before, Florida colleges are being asked to do more with less.

Broward College, faced with about $11 million in state budget cuts over the past two years, is considering offering buyouts to dozens of longtime employees. Broward also has gone to a four-day work week this summer to shave energy costs, officials said.

Orlando’s Valencia Community College is facing an estimated 10 to 12 percent enrollment spike in the fall, said President Sanford Shugart, with no added state support. The college has avoided layoffs, but about 3,000 students this fall will not be able to get the courses they need because the college does not have enough instructors to teach all the students expected to attend. The college is adding more adjunct faculty to keep up, and asking them to taking on larger academic loads, Shugart said.

“Our challenge is to add capacity without adding any faculty,” he said. “We’ve tried all kinds of tricks. We are at full capacity. There is no room at the inn.”

The squeeze is not as bad at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, which ranks seventh in the overall number of associate degrees awarded. Still, the college has seen enrollment spike by 20 percent in the last year and state support shrink by an identical percentage.

Shrinking State Support

The college’s budget for 2009-10 absorbs an $8 million reduction in state funding, said President Steven R. Wallace. He noted that ten years ago, state appropriations comprised 75 percent of the college’s budget. Today, state support has dropped to 51 percent of the total budget, Wallace said.

Wallace said the blow has been softened because the school began cutting costs and looking for more revenue sources at the first signs of the economic downturn in 2007. The college laid off 75 employees and left another 50 jobs vacant, none of them faculty positions, Wallace said. It also bolstered workforce training and military training programs to fill the school’s coffers.

“It was a difficult plan, but we have not touched a single faculty position,” he said. “We have not turned away a single student.” 

The growth of Florida community colleges is being fed by several factors:

 High school students are being shut out of universities by rising academic requirements, enrollment caps and rising tuition. A public school reform plan has raised the education aspirations of high school students, meaning more students are competing for college slots.

 Displaced workers and those who fear they’ll lose their jobs are looking to be retrained are turning to community colleges as a low-cost alternative to four-year colleges or private schools.

 Veterans returning to school are expected to swell enrollments when the new, more generous GI Bill goes into effect in August.

 A push for state community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

That last factor accounts for much of the growth being experienced by St. Petersburg College, which awarded 2,812 associate degrees in 2007-08, ranking it tenth in the country, according to CCWeek’s analysis. The college now enrolls 4,000 students in its upper division, said college President Carl M. Kuttler Jr.

“We led the fight for the four-year degrees,” he said. “Among the state’s 67 counties, we ranked last for the percentage of our population with bachelor’s degrees. That had to change. What we’re doing is focusing on about 20 workforce-related programs” such as nursing, orthotics and prosthetics and veterinary technology.

While the college has avoided layoffs, space is tight there, Kuttler said.

“We’re at 104 percent capacity,” he said. “If you look at it like an airline, 4 percent of our students are flying in baggage.”

Even as enrollments and degree production have increased, Florida’s system of paying for higher education has exacerbated funding difficulties. Community colleges in Florida receive no local support, making them reliant on state funding, tuition and fees. Florida has no personal income tax; it relies primarily on sales taxes for revenue, and the cratering of the economy has created a $6 billion budget shortfall.

State lawmakers have both cut spending on community colleges and stopped funding growth, halting per-student payments for new enrollees.

Protecting Quality

The consequences have been dire at Miami Dade. No state funds have been provided about 35,000 students, Padrón  said. Full-time equivalent per-student funding has dropped from $3,643 per FTE in 2006-07 to $2,959 in 2009-10, according to figures provided by the college.

Padrón  said the budget cuts are intended to protect the academic quality of the college.

“What we are trying to do is protect our core mission. We just don’t want our programs to lose their value. We’re not about to sacrifice that. We are doing this as a last resort. We have no choice,” he said.

The burden on community colleges has been eased by federal stimulus money.

Miami Dade received $13.6 million in stimulus dollars, but Padrón worries about what will happen when that cash runs out in two years.

College leaders said the long-term solution is for lawmakers to devise new funding formulas to keep college support stable even in economic downturns.

“There is no way we can continue to try to educate so many students without more help,”  Padrón said.

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