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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 October 21 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Bursting at the Seams

Do more with less.

That’s a refrain familiar to community college leaders being asked to meet missions ranging from remediation of low-achieving students to retraining workers displaced by a bruising recession to teaching ballroom dancing to senior citizens.

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But it is also one of the central themes emerging from a national survey of members of state directors of community colleges, conducted by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

The survey found that while community college enrollments are surging — fed by the recession and a significant increase in the college-aged population — funding for colleges, sapped by sagging tax revenues and competing needs, is headed in the opposite direction.

“This report finds that as the largest branch of undergraduate enrollment, community collegesface unprecedented demand, both fromtherecession as well as all-time record growth in high school graduation class size in many states,” said Steven G. Katsinas, professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center. “Together these make community colleges even more important to the nation’s lifelong learning and workforce development.”

Findings of the survey underscore the abundant anecdotal evidence about the state of community colleges – that they are crowded and being squeezed between increasing demands and shrinking resources.

Said Linda Serra Hagedorn, director of the Research Institute for Studies in Education at Iowa State University: “Never before have community colleges been asked to do so much in times when the need is so great. (This study) presents the reality confronting the contemporary community college.”

Funding Threatened

The study found that even as the nation is mired in recession and is counting on community colleges to right the listing economy, community college funding is threatened. Thirty-four of 48 states which took part in the survey took mid-year budget cuts to their community college budgets in fiscal year 2008-09, and most predict more mid-year budget cuts in the year ahead.

“At a time of all-time record enrollments, state operating budget support for community colleges actually declined last year by 1 percent,” the report found.

But as dismal as the financial situation was, it would have been much worse without the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Relief Act of 2009, which provided billions of dollars of relief to states to forestall deep spending cuts. Much of that money went to prop up sagging education budgets.

“If not for the economic stimulus package, a bad situation for all sectors could have been a lot worse,” Katsinas said.

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • Despite unprecedented praise and attention, community colleges and other sectors of public higher education faced deep mid-year budget cuts last year, state funding will decline in the next fiscal year, and further mid-year cuts are expected.

  • The predicted average decline of 1 percent in state operating budgets for community colleges is larger than any other education sector, and comes at a time of record enrollments.

  • Decreased state revenue resulting from economic recession was by far the key budget driver in states last year; Medicaid, K-12 Education, ARRA Funding were other key drivers.

  • Most states have used federal stimulus funds for their intended purpose — to backfill state budget shortfalls. Deep concerns remain, however, regarding the amount of available ARRA funds next year, and even deeper concerns exist regarding what will happen once ARRA funds run out in 2011.

  • The high-tuition/high-aid is not working to promote access. Tuition at public access institutions (community colleges and regional and flagship universities) is increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation, at a time when 30 of 43 states report declines or flat-funding in need and merit-based student aid.

Long-Term Trend

The trends afflicting community colleges were in place prior to the onset of the recession, the study found. Indeed, a report he compiled in 2005 on long-term community college funding, Katsinas wrote: “Sadly. . .attention does not translate into hard dollars to finance preservation – much less expansion – of the open door college. For those who see community colleges as critical portals to the baccalaureate, and who are concerned with access to an education that can prepare and retain workers for the jobs in the knowledge economy, the current situation is troubling. Structural state budget deficits caused by skyrocketing increases in health care, corrections and K-12 expenditures threaten community college operating budgets, as do the anti-tax and private benefits movement.”

Since then, record enrollments and declining revenues have been straining the capacity of rural, urban and suburban community colleges to serve recent high school graduates and adequately address workforce training needs for older adults.

The five largest states have capped enrollments at their public flagship universities, and four of five have capped enrollments at their public regional universities. The deep recession will compound these challenges for community colleges and other sectors of public higher education, the survey found.

“This report could not come at a more crucial time,” said Frank Mensel, senior fellow at the Education Policy Center and former vice president for governmental affairs for the American Association of Community Colleges. “The findings suggest that President Obama’s plan to invest $12 billion into community college facility construction and renovation over the next 10 years could not come at a better time. Community colleges are being asked to do more with less, and, in many states, our community colleges are bursting at the seams and in desperate need of funds for new and renovated facilities.”

The study found that the financial crunch is undermining the ability of community colleges to maintain their open-door policies.

Terrence A. Tollefson, professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University and co-author of the report, noted the growing number of urban and suburban community colleges facing great fiscal strain this year as strong evidence of the impact of recession, and record high school graduation class sizes on community colleges.

“The continuing growth in the percentages of suburban and urban community colleges facing fiscal strain reflects the fiscal crisis, as well as the enrollment challenge that these institutions face as they try to maintain the open door,” Tollefson said.

California Squeezed

In California, for example, the nation’s largest community college system enrollment jumped by more than 135,000 this year to about 2.9 million students. Over the past four years, enrollment at California’s community colleges has increased by 15.9 percent, while state funding for the colleges has been cut by $840 million over the past two academic years.

“These new enrollment figures confirm the concerns our college presidents began voicing last academic year — the demand for a community college education is soaring at a time when there is an unparalleled divestment in higher education,” said California system Chancellor Jack Scott. “This divestment will hurt California for years to come and undermine the state’s economic recovery. Our funding doesn’t match our enrollment, and our students will feel the effects in many ways.”

California has responded to the funding crunch by reducing course offerings at some colleges by as much as 20 percent. Students are being turned away and instructed to register for the spring semester.

The University of Alabama survey found that as in California, college directors nationwide are straining to meet their myriad of responsibilities. Of six key community college functions identified in the survey, state directors reported that five have been weakened over the past two years, including: general education and transfer-oriented functions; vocational occupational and technical education; noncredit community service; developmental education; and the fine and cultural arts.

The sole function identified to be strengthened was federal workforce training programs.

In addition, the directors predicted that two critical functions will continue to weaken over the next year — general education and transfer and vocational- occupational- and technical-education programs.

The latter is considered to be especially significant, the report’s authors noted, because they correlate to high-wage jobs in high-demand areas, such as allied health and nursing and engineering technology.

“Given the reality that many of the most expensive programs at community colleges are housed within the vocational/occupational
/technical education function, if state operating budgets are cut as predicted, it may be difficult for community colleges to change their program mix to help the nation’s workforce. . . without substantial additional revenues,” the report states.

The report also highlights the critical role that community colleges will play in meeting Obama’s goal of making the United States number one in the world in adult baccalaureate attainment.But colleges need more support if that goal is to be realized.

“My work with urban community college districts has revealed that the student-to-counselor ratio is typically more than 1,000 to one,” Serra Hagedorn said. “This report clearly points to the need for increased funding for programs and services aimed at making a baccalaureate an attainable goal for the upcoming tidal wave of community college students.”

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