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2016 November 3 - 04:37 pm

State Disinvestment: Is It a No Win Situation?

To Survive and Thrive, Leaders Must Broaden and Deepen Connections

As major transitions in the community college world are transpiring, institutional leaders require broader and deeper connections to their communities, including building relationships with small businesses, corporations, chambers of commerce, philanthropic organizations, and the media. Today’s public policy agendas require community colleges to engage in practices that heretofore were not part of their operational strategies nor sanctioned in state statutes.

Such practices require that community colleges ask the question, “Is higher education a business?” Indeed, in today’s changing educational landscape, college leaders must think differently not only to survive, but also to thrive. For some college leaders these changes are exciting, exhilarating, and long overdue. However, for many in the administrative hierarchy of community colleges, the breadth of new challenges appears enormous, especially if compared to challenges faced by our peers from the mid-1960s, when community colleges were growing at a rate of one per week, and from pre-recession 2008, when student enrollment growth was steady.

From a teaching and learning perspective, the Completion Agenda, with its attention to long-time community college values of student access, retention, and success and its focus on workforce, is changing the national higher education discussion; and, pilot programs and practices in these areas are being led by the federal government, major philanthropic organizations and senior leaders in community colleges and other higher education institutions. New game-changing realities require increased pressure and focus on student success as well as student access.

State Disinvestment

In 2014, the Center for American Progress made the case for a new federal and state partnership to help ensure increased access, affordability and completion. This compact has not come into being. However, the continuing decline of state government subsidies and appropriations has become glaringly clear, as has the waning of the premise that education is a public good. Undoubtedly, the future of public education is changing based on the political influences and funding designed to control the educational environment and its future planning initiatives. The policy model of neoliberalism puts a face on the pending changes and allows us to take a stroll through the past so we may better define and control the future. Investopedia describes neoliberalism thus:

“Neoliberalism is a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It takes from the basic principles of neoclassical economics, suggesting that governments must limit subsidies, make reforms to tax law in order to expand the tax base, reduce deficit spending, limit protectionism, and open markets up to trade.”

For educators, this language can be daunting and confusing, as well as restrictive in the viable options available for community colleges to manage their destinies and achieve their future goals.

Economists have long argued that states have a vested interest in supporting institutions of higher education, both because of the public benefits of an educated populace (e.g., lower levels of incarceration, less reliance on social support programs, a greater ability to attract and staff advanced industries, higher levels of civic participation); and, because college-educated individuals tend to earn more money, which translates into higher tax revenues for states.

Yet over the past 30 years, there has been a well-documented shift in funding for community colleges from state support to local and individual sources, namely property taxes and tuition. This trend intensified in the years following the Great Recession; between 2009 and 2010 alone, community colleges averaged a 9 percent decrease in state appropriations per full-time equivalent (FTE) student, and a corresponding 11 percent decrease in instructional expenditures, despite ballooning enrollments from workers in need of retraining and students unable to afford or gain access to four-year institutions. Perhaps most troubling, in many states per-FTE appropriations and instructional expenditures have failed to return to prerecession levels, despite the economic recovery.

Taken together, both the long- and short-term shifts in funding indicate a national trend toward state disinvestment in community colleges, the consequences of which are only beginning to be comprehended. An in-depth understanding of this trend and its costs to community colleges and the students who attend them is central to the nation’s goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with highquality degrees, certificates, and other postsecondary credentials, as well as its work in advancing state policy to close achievement gaps for underrepresented populations.

Uncertain Road Ahead

Over the last seven years, federal funding for community colleges grew at unprecedented levels, and some have called this period the “Community College Renaissance.” Yet, the recognition and funding appear short-lived and the future of public education is in jeopardy. College executive and instructional leaders realize that existing models for teaching, learning, and finance will not be sufficient in reaching institutional completion goals.

Economic changes have been the most important drivers impacting local college strategies and altering state and institutional behavior. As budgets began to tighten across the country, community colleges changed hiring ratios for both full- and part-time staff in pursuit of increased student populations and in hopes of additional state and local funding. And it seemed to work, since during the recession, community colleges across America showed unprecedented increases in enrollment growth. College leaders were able to achieve more with less state support, but the gains still came at a cost. And the ability to sustain high-quality outcomes and productivity is still in question.

Ultimately, state budget officials did not feel compelled to fund our colleges because they continued to increase productivity. Colleges appeared successful with the new model for productivity; however, college leaders failed to understand the long-term consequences for their faculty, staff and institutions. Community colleges have not been able to reinstate former levels of support, despite being recognized as the largest provider of workforce training in the country and having an economic impact in the billions of dollars. Unless community college leaders leverage the power and authority this status offers, their influence at the policy level will remain inadequate.

Higher education, and education in general, is at an apex, and the learning ecosystem is in flux. Establishing an appropriate learning ecosystem requires stable and predictable funding sources, and as unlikely a possibility as that may seem, all is not lost. New strategies for funding these institutions are being developed and used across the nation. Community college leaders need to learn more about these innovative approaches. Indeed, understanding the neoliberalism change management framework and how it may negatively impact future funding levels empowers community college leaders to question whether there are other means to achieve institutional goals, including improving college completion rates. To participate at the optimal level in today’s dynamic education environment, the 21st century community col lege leader will serve as educator, communicator, fundraiser, entrepreneur, and mediator, all while striving to minimize the fear of declining state investments and providing a vision of empowerment, knowledge, and control of the institution’s destiny.

Rufus Glasper is president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. He is chancellor emeritus of Maricopa Community Colleges. Carrie B. Kisker is an education research and policy consultant and director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges.

This article is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@ national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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