Cuts in State Budgets Threaten Nation's College-Completion Agenda

December 08, 2011

Cuts in state budgets are putting the nation's college-completion agenda in jeopardy, says a new report by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

The center surveyed members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, whose institutions' main goals these days are graduating more students and adequately preparing them for employment. Yet few states have long-term plans to increase colleges' operating and capital budgets enough to serve additional adult students pursuing degrees and certificates, respondents said. The stagnant financial outlook presents a particular challenge to institutions enrolling one of the nation's fastest-growing demographic groups, Latinos, the report says.

By a margin of 2 to 1, respondents to the survey were pessimistic about the prospect of raising overall graduation rates as state budgets are reduced.

But increasing the number of Americans who complete college must remain a state priority, as two-thirds of jobs today require postsecondary education, said Mark M. D'Amico, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a co-author of the report.

The report, "Challenging Success: Can College Degree Completion Be Increased as States Cut Budgets?," is the second in a three-part series by the Education Policy Center, which surveyed the 51 members of the national council in July and August (each state has one member except Georgia, which has two).

De facto enrollment caps are in place at nearly a third of respondents' colleges, the survey found, and in three of the five largest states, public flagship and regional universities have raised admissions standards to limit transfers.

Of particular concern to the report's authors is the issue of capacity. The nation cannot increase the number of college graduates, they argue, without significant investment in capital infrastructure. Limited capacity has forced colleges to ration opportunities, restricting, for example, the number of class sections, says the report.

Policy makers have not paid enough attention to improving facilities, said Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education who is director of the center and a co-author of the report. President Obama this year proposed spending $5-billion to improve facilities at community colleges and tribal colleges as part of his American Jobs Act, but Congress has yet to vote on that provision.

Many buildings at two- and four-year institutions were constructed between 1965 and 1980, Mr. Katsinas said, and the need for either renovation or new construction is paramount. "I haven't met a college president that didn't talk about the need for facilities," he said.