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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 July 27 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Dealing with The Downturn

The bruising economic recession has been battering community colleges all around the country.

Squeezed between skyrocketing enrollment and shrinking resources, community colleges, the very institutions which policymakers call critical to the country’s economic revival could soon be turning away hundreds of thousands of students.

The problems are being fueled by the desire of thousands of dislocated workers in search of new skills, and the need of thousands more for higher education at an affordable price.

And while the ills afflicting community colleges are well-documented, the professional associations that advocate on their behalf are also ailing. Their membership ranks are down or static and attendance at conventions and conferences is slipping.

The American Association of Community Colleges, the largest and best-known of the two-year college professional associations, saw attendance at its annual convention drop from about 1,400 registered participants in 2008 to just over 1,000 this year.

AACC’s membership is also down. In 2009, the group has 1,005 institutional members, compared to 1,046 the year before.

AACC President George R. Boggs said the sagging numbers could have been worse.

“I’ve been doing a lot of arm-twisting,” he said with a laugh.

Boggs said the statistics are directly tied to a weakened economy, considered the worst since the Great Depression, a downturn that has wreaked havoc with state higher education budgets.

“That’s what people are telling me,” he said. “A number of states have travel restrictions. Our conferences generally attract senior-level people, and right now, the spotlight is on them. If they travel, there could be questions raised back home.”

Ironic Timing

That his association and others are suffering at the precise time that community colleges have ascended to near the top of the national agenda is an irony that is not lost on Boggs.

“Here we are lobbying hard to get Pell grants increased and for the economic stimulus, but if we continue to lose members, it really will undercut our effectiveness,” he said.

Gerardo E. de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, said his group is also feeling the effects of the ailing economy.

“At our most recent conference, Learning College Summit, held June 14-17 in Phoenix, Arizona, which is one of the League’s smaller convenings, our attendance decreased from the previous year by approximately 15%, from 300 participants in 2008 to 256 participants in 2009,” he said. “As expected, those who could not attend share reasons such as frozen travel budgets, budget cuts, and conservative fiscal planning.”

He added: “The League is just beginning its annual membership drive, so it’s too early to tell the overall impact of the recession on the 2009-10 membership, yet we do know that League Alliance College membership decreased from 950 in 2008 to 901 in 2009 — all colleges stating budgets cuts as the reason for not being able to renew their membership.”

The ills afflicting education associations have spread to other associations and conferences across the spectrum.

John H. Graham IV, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives & the Center for Association Leadership, told Tradeshow Week that many associations are slashing their budgets – freezing salaries, halting hiring and reducing spending on travel.

He added: “What our information determined is that people seem willing to attend their own organization’s program as much as they did previously, but they are less likely, in this environment, to attend shorter meetings.”

Against that dismal backdrop, associations are taking measures to hold on to members, boost attendance at their meetings and fulfill their missions in troubled times.

J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, said attendance at the group’s annual legislative summit in Washington last February was down only slightly compared to the previous year. But he acknowledges that attendance was buoyed by the fact that there was a new administration and new Congress in Washington.

Scaling Back

The same held true for the American Council on Education. ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said attendance at the group’s annual convention, held in Washington in February, was about the same as the year before.

“I really think there is a realization of the importance of the federal government in education when so many states, financially speaking, are on their backs,” she said. “Our members realize the importance of Washington.”

Brown is currently planning his group’s 40th annual Congress, scheduled for Oct. 7 to 10 in San Francisco. In the face of the new economic realities, Brown has both scaled the meeting back and is trying to develop a program that will be meaningful and attractive to the group’s members.

“We have reduced the number of hotel rooms we are blocking off,” he said. “We have changed our audio-video provider. We’ve had our auditors reduce their fees.”

In addition, the ACCT no longer pays a fee to its keynote speaker.

“We have not done that in four years,” he said. “We find people that we think have an important message and want to share it, someone with something serious to say about public policy, because that is what we are interested in.”

This year’s congress takes a global view of an economy that has spread into all corners of the globe. It is entitled “Achieving Success in a Global Economy: Navigating the Education Landscape in Turbulent Times.” Brown said it is aimed at being topical and tangible to today’s troubled times.

“We want to make it valuable and real,” he said.

The groups website describes it like this: “America’s unique advantage is our extensive national network of community and technical colleges which are committed to providing access and focusing on meeting the educational and workforce needs of communities. Community and technical colleges have never been more relevant. They have been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of providing solutions to our collective challenges emanating from today’s rapidly transformed global economy.”

At the same time, Brown is dealing with the immediate here and now. The ACCT has launched a new membership campaign. In addition to trying to keep its current members in the fold, the group also is reaching out to colleges which are not currently members.

“I am doing all the things that I need to do to trim the budget. But at the same time, we’ve launched an aggressive membership campaign,” Brown said. “We’re telling people that they benefit from the work that we do, so they should sign on the dotted line.”

The efforts are paying off. The group currently has 559 member boards, an increase of 13 over last year.

Most importantly, Brown said, the ACCT has drawn a clear line between its membership activities – paid for with dues – and its two annual conferences – which are paid for on a fee basis.

“We want all of our dues-paying members to get equal benefits,” he said. “We don’t want the dues to subsidize our other activities. There needs to be a clear line.”

Boggs said the AACC is also shaping its 2010 conference in Seattle so that it is more relevant to participants.

More Practical

“We are trying to make it more hands-on,” he said. “We are trying to think of things that the colleges really need. What do colleges need in this economic downturn? What can they do? What can they cut? We are really striving to be of practical value to the colleges.”

Associations are also taking steps to cuts costs. Boggs cut $260,000 from his group’s budget earlier this year, choosing not to fill vacant jobs, cutting back on marketing activities and delaying fundraising campaigns. More than ever before, the group is relying on grants to pay employee salaries, he said.

AACC has also cut back on the number of rooms it is setting aside for its 2010 convention. Boggs said speakers and breakout session at the meeting will focus on the practical – how can colleges best weather the economic storm?

Using Technology

De los Santos said his group is also looking for ways to cut costs.

“We have transformed our publications operations to primarily digital format, with limited print runs,” he said. “As a result of moving toward digital publications primarily, we have also cut costs in postage and delivery. And over the past five years, the core League staff has decreased from 19 fulltime to 15 fulltime members.”

The league is also using technology to fulfill its mission.

“While face-to-face meetings provide an opportunity for personal, tactile connections and networking, many colleges cannot afford to send as many educators as they may like,” he said. “Therefore, remote meetings are becoming increasingly valuable. To that end, the League continues to grow and populate iStream, our online resource repository, which is a portal-based, multimedia-rich set of resources that brings of the League’s conferences, publications, services, partnerships, and networking to community college educators.

“It’s a valuable, cost-effective way to share conference keynotes, special sessions, and webinars... particularly for those faculty and staff not able to attend the face-
to-face meetings.”

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