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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 November 15 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Imperiled Promise

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Imperiled Promise
Open-Access Mission Being Threatened by Stagnant
Economy

By Paul Bradley

AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randy Pench

Protesters hold a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., last March. They were objecting to budget cuts and rising fees at state colleges and universities.

It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and it doesn’t take a survey to affirm that the nation’s community colleges have been navigating stormy economic seas for the past year.

But the wave of economic trouble could swell in the next budget year, threatening not only to undermine President Obama’s goal of producing 5 million more college graduates by 2020, but also the colleges’ historic open access mission.

Those are among the conclusions arising from “Uncertain Recovery: Access and Funding Issues in Public Higher Education,” a report and survey released earlier this month by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

The yearly survey of members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, conducted July 15 through Aug. 27, provides a snapshot of the state of community college finances across the country, and what emerged is not a pretty picture.

“There is a lot of uncertainty across the states,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center and co-author of the report. “At the same time, there has been little long-term planning. The primary strategy appears to be: Pray, and hope for a state revenue rebound.”

The survey suggests that the most immediate threat is posed by the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the federal stimulus act, which pumped $787 billion into the national economy.

Of the $787 billion, $100 billion was disbursed to state education agencies to backfill funding cuts imposed by states facing their own fiscal woes, staving off massive layoffs of faculty and staff. 

A seperate survey conducted by the League for Innovation in the Community College and the Campus Computing Project found that two-thirds of college presidents reported receiving ARRA funds, averaging nearly $2 million per campus, and spent most of the cash on saving the jobs of instructional staff.

Money Drying Up

The problem is that the ARRA money is about to dry up, and relatively few states have plans as to how they will make up for the loss of the federal dollars.

It’s worth noting that in announcing the ARRA funding for education, federal officials sounded a cautionary note on how the money should be used.

“ARRA represents a historic infusion of funds that is expected to be temporary,” a March 2009 announcement from the U.S. Education Department said. “Depending on the program, these funds are available for only two to three years. These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.”

The “Uncertain Recovery” survey found that of the 48 state directors who responded to the question, only 11, or 23 percent, said that their state has a plan for the end of ARRA funding. Sixteen others said they were unsure if their state had a plan.

“Put differently, over three of four indicate either having no plan or not being sure of the plan as federal ARRA stimulus funding ends in their state,” the report states.

Those numbers amount to a troubling harbinger of difficult days ahead, said Terrance A. Tollefson, professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University, in comments included in the survey report.

“That only 11 percent of state community college directors reported the existence of a state plan to cope when ARRA funds disappear, and that 16 others said ‘not sure,’ speaks volumes about the still harder times ahead for public higher education,” he said.

The survey found that the end of ARRA funding is expected to result in operating budget cuts in many states next year: 21 directors said the expect cuts in operating budgets, while 9 said they were unsure.   See Budget Charts 

Among the other key findings of the survey:

  • Access pressures will grow as enrollment surges. According to a pending Education Policy Center study, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the American population will grow by 1 million between 2009 and 2012, and the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 will grow by 3 million between 2009 and 2012. The wave of students knocking at the door for access to postsecondary education programs and services will occur whether or not public postsecondary institutions are funded to serve them, Katsinas said.

  • Most public flagship and regional universities have not capped enrollment, but a number of large states have done so, pushing more students to community colleges. Public flagship university enrollments have not been capped in most states (34), but the 11 reporting caps include four of the largest states: California, New York, Florida, and Illinois. Public regional universities have not capped enrollments in most states (35), but the seven reporting caps include three of the nation’s five largest states: California, Florida, and Illinois. Just one state, California, reported capping community college enrollment, but California by itself enrolls more than one of every four community
    college students in the country.

  • While most directors (28) predict their state’s community colleges have sufficient capacity to accommodate current and future projections of high school graduates, a third (14) do not. While half of respondents (25) predict their community colleges have sufficient capacity to serve current and projected numbers of older returning adult students, nearly as many (18) do not, including the large states of California, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina.

  • Enrollment increases are predicted at community colleges in 35 states with an estimated average increase of 9 percent; no state predicted an enrollment decline. Most large states and those with fast-growing Hispanic populations, and industrial Midwest heartland states serving workers in need of retooling in the recession, predict enrollment increases. With 15 states predicting enrollment increases of 10 percent or more, combined with caps at many public flagship and regional universities, access pressure is increasing at the nation’s community colleges.

  • In almost every state (45 of 49 states), funding for new construction and renovation was identified as a major need. An overwhelming majority believe federal aid for facilities is needed for new construction and renovation (38 agree, 3 disagree).

  • Tuition was raised in all postsecondary sectors in most states last year, on average at five times the rate of inflation, often on an across-the-board basis, especially in large states. But tuition increases were generally not used to cover the anticipated end of ARRA funding.

Colleges Contracting

The financial struggles at community colleges mean that some are contracting at the precise moment they should be expanding to meeting the new demands of degree completion and workforce training.

The focus on community colleges by the Obama administration has not translated into more financial support at the state level, creating serious questions on whether colleges can sustain their open access mission.

“The mission of community colleges is under assault,” said Janice N. Friedel, co-author of the report and professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department at California State University Northridge. “How can they be institutions with open access when they don’t have the capacity? How can that they serve the diverse needs of people when they are contracting?”

“The future of access is at stake,” she added. “It is ironic that the accountability and policy shifts from access to student success and graduation are heralded at a time when resources are being cut. Enrollments caps at public flagship universities and regional universities are ‘pushing’ students to community colleges. Community colleges are eliminating sections and classes; the time to program completion for many is extended instead of shortened. Enrollments across all public higher education in the mega-state of California, where one of every four U.S. community college students are enrolled, are capped.

“Truly access is at stake. Compound these caps with reductions of sections and classes, rising tuition, and flat or cut student aid and our nation’s capacity
to develop human potential and promise is in peril.”

It’s YOUR TURN. CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Do you think the future of access at community collrges is imperiled?  What is the financial forecast for your college in the upcoming fiscal year?
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