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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 November 30 - 12:00 am

Squeezed: As Enrollment Surges, Funding Shrinks

Squeezed
As Enrollment Surges, Funding Shrinks

Sagging Economy Puts Pressure on Community Colleges

By Paul Bradley

Across the country, from sea to shining sea, enrollment at community colleges continues its remarkable upward climb.

In the five years between 2001 and 2006, community colleges saw their overall enrollment jump by 2.2 million students — about the entire population of the city of Houston — according to a report prepared for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Colleges of all types and sizes are seeing enrollment spikes, a trend that is accelerating as economic conditions sour.

According to Community College Week’s annual analysis of the nation’s 50 fastest-growing community colleges, the Central Indiana campus of Ivy Tech Community College topped the list among large colleges (those with enrollments in excess of 10,000 students). Between 2006 and 2007, Ivy Tech’s rosters swelled by 2,250 students, pushing total enrollment to nearly 13,500 students. See table.

The upward climb continued in 2008. Statewide, Ivy Tech’s 23 campuses established a record high for first day of fall semester enrollment: 86,130 students, up 11.8 percent from the year before.

Like other community colleges, Ivy Tech has seen its enrollment soar as the economy has soured, sending students — especially non-traditional students — back to school in search of affordable options to gain or burnish skills.

College President Thomas J. Snyder said several other factors are responsible for the school’s rapid growth. Since 2005, when the 23-campus system was officially chartered as Indiana’s community college, Ivy Tech has made a concerted effort to increase its visibility as an essential educational option, he said.

He added that the state’s four-year colleges have been de-emphasizing their associate degree programs, putting the responsibility of two-year programs squarely on Ivy Tech’s shoulders. In addition, Ivy Tech has forged agreements with employers in specific regions of the state. Biotechnology degrees, for example, are offered in South Bend, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Bloomington and Terre Haute, and each campus has specific industry partners.

“The state has recognized that we are in the talent development business,” Snyder  said. “This college is nimble. It is community-driven. Although we are a statewide system, we are tailored to the state’s individual markets.” 

Roger Schultz is president of Mt. San Jacinto College in California, which saw its enrollment spike more than 13 percent, second to Ivy Tech, according to the  CCWeek analysis. He said galloping population growth in Southern California combined with the collapse of the housing market there have prompted students to go back to school.

“Unemployment here is 9.5 percent,” he said. “You have a lot of displaced workers who are trying to get more training.”

Crisis Intensifying

Yet even as community colleges classrooms are flush with students, they are also facing a financial crisis unprecedented in its scope. A decline in revenues stemming from the national recession is drying up funding at the state and local levels, leaving Policy makers scrambling to find ways to get through the rest of the year without cutting vital services or raising fees.

Even before the Wall Street collapse in September, a National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges survey already was painting a dire community college portrait for the rest of this year and beyond.

Among the findings:

 Three in five survey respondents said chronic state budget deficits will hurt public colleges, especially community colleges.

 Between 2007 and 2008, community colleges experienced the largest drop in funding of any public education sector. Community colleges’ 5.2 percent loss compares with 1.8 percent for flagship universities and 3.7 percent for regional state colleges.

 Enrollment caps and dramatically increased tuition at public universities are pushing more students into community colleges.

 In fiscal year 2006-07, 47 states reported no mid-year cuts in community college operating budgets. In this budget year, though, more than half of the states expect mid-year budget reductions.

“The position of higher education generally, and community colleges specifically, as well as the position of public education, has dramatically weakened across all of the states over the last year,” said Stephen Katsinas, a University of Alabama professor who was one of the survey’s authors.

Budget Axe Falling

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, about 41 states face budget shortfalls this fiscal year or next. Half of them cut services or raised fees to bring their budgets into balance for the fiscal year that began in July, only to see those budgets fall out of balance again as economic conditions got worse.

In many states, the second round of budget reductions has begun and it’s hitting hard from California to New York.

Faced with a staggering $11 billion gap in state revenue projections, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed cutting $332.2 million in funding from the state’s 110 community colleges.

According to the Community College League of California, the budget cuts will force community colleges to turn away about 263,000 students.

The California community college system, the nation’s largest, serves about 1.7 million students every year.

The League believes that the state must look elsewhere as it struggles to balance its budget.

“California community colleges are our state’s best economic stimulus,” said Scott Lay, the League’s president. “We must decide now to make the investment needed to emerge from this downturn with a more equipped and knowledgeable workforce that translates into quality jobs for our taxpayers and a stronger economy.”

Schultz said Mt. San Jacinto is bracing for cuts, looking to cut costs in any way it can.

“There are some tough decisions that need to be made,” he said. “Are we going to have some people upset that they can’t get the courses they want? Yes. But I want to maintain our core mission. I don’t like across-the-board cuts. We will be looking section-by-section, course-by-course.”

A continent away, in New York, the budget picture is just as bleak.

Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed a midyear budget cut of $348 million from the State University of New York and the City University of New York. It is part of Paterson’s two-year plan to close a looming $5.2 billion budget gap.

“The unfortunate reality is that many worthy programs with laudable goals, some of which I have supported in the past, will have to experience reductions in funding,” Paterson said in a statement. “These are not decisions that I have made lightly. With the state facing the largest deficits in its history, we have no other option but to make these tough but necessary choices.”

Paterson’s plan also reduces per-student base aid to community colleges by an average of 10 percent, from $2,675 to an average of $2,405. He also has also proposed hiking tuition at state-supported colleges for just the second time in more than a decade.

The SUNY Student Assembly issued a statement in opposition to the tuition hike.

“New York State is in a tight spot, we understand that completely. But the state cannot expect SUNY students and their families to bear more of the burden than anyone else,” Jacob Crawford, the assembly’s president, said in a statement. “While all agencies, including SUNY, are being cut, SUNY students are the only ones being asked to also pay more. The state’s purse strings may be tighter than ever, but so are those of our students. Responsible spending paired with a rational tuition plan is the solution, not asking students for what is essentially an additional tax for state coffers.”

College officials say it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance their budgets, despite consolidating departments, outsourcing functions like bookstores and cutting energy bills by making buildings more efficient, as enrollment continues to swell.

Over the past two years, for example, Virginia’s two-year schools have added 14,000 students, a figure larger than the total 2007 enrollment at nine of the commonwealth’s 15 four-year institutions. 

Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College system, said the 23-college system has seen its funding cut by 10 percent this year — about $40 million —  and more cuts are likely as the commonwealth looks for ways to balance its books.

“With $40 million in budget cuts, we are getting pretty close to the bone,” he said.

A Myriad of Factors

DuBois cites several factors for the growth, including the economic downturn and the affordability of community colleges compared to four-year colleges in the state.

“In 2005, our cost was $2,300 a year less than attending a four-year public college,” he said. “Now, it’s $5,000. More and more middle class families are shopping around.”

The system also has forged transfer agreements with four-year colleges, creating what DuBois calls an “on-ramp to a degree.”

One measure that surely would save money would be to limit enrollment, but that is a step that DuBois and others are unwilling to take.

“That would be antithetical to our mission,” he said. “Access is our middle name, and we won’t change that. Classes might be more crowded, and you might not get the schedule you want, but you’ll get in. The danger is that you begin thinning the soup.”

Ivy Tech’s Snyder shares DuBois’ concerns that rapid growth amid tight budgets creates concerns about maintaining quality.

But he also believes that limiting access is not the answer. More access, not less, is what is needed to compete in a global economy, he said.

“We really think in Indiana that community colleges are the key to growing the middle class,” he said. “We have to be a gateway. The country as a whole is not growing its percentage of college graduates.

“That has to change, and community colleges are critical to the effort.”

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