Fingers Crossed, Leaders of Community Colleges Hope for Cash to Fix Facilities

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Peter Allan, an interim vice president at Victor Valley College: "Every time there's a rainstorm, there's either a flooded parking lot or flooded classroom."
October 02, 2011

In many ways, Victor Valley College has an exceptionally modern campus. Thirty percent of the California community college's energy comes from a sprawling six-acre field of solar panels—one of the largest of its kind in North America. Its science building houses a state-of-the-art planetarium. And most of the institution's grass has been replaced with sustainable, synthetic landscaping to conserve water, a priority at a college located in the Mojave Desert. But when it comes to the basics, much of Victor Valley is falling apart.

The college was built during the rapid expansion of the nation's higher-education system in the 1960s and 70s, and despite efforts to maintain aging sections of the campus, the roofs of the oldest buildings leak nearly every time it rains. That often means canceled classes. "Absolutely every time there's a rainstorm, there's either a flooded parking lot or flooded classroom or something," says Peter W. Allan, the college's interim executive vice president for instruction and student services.

The air-conditioning system also has a history of breaking down, he says, forcing more canceled classes on hot days, when the desert heat reaches nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the campus's computers are outdated, course scheduling is still done by hand, and the college has been forced to cut back on classroom equipment and supplies. Mr. Allan estimates that of the institution's 35 buildings, about half need to be replaced.

Victor Valley is just one of many community colleges whose aging campuses desperately need renovation. Since President Obama announced his American Jobs Act, on September 8, administrators across the country have been holding their breath in hopes of receiving part of a $5-billion chunk reserved for community colleges. The legislation requires that the money be spent specifically on modernizing and repairing outdated facilities, including upgrading technology, improving energy efficiency, and removing asbestos.

"All across North Carolina, all across the country, there are schools with leaking ceilings and lousy heating, ventilation so poor it can make students sick," said Mr. Obama during a recent speech at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. "How can we expect our kids to do their best in places like that?"

Hot Water at Last

In Texas, Amarillo College is in the process of renovating two buildings, which have remained largely unimproved for more than 40 years. The institution's president, Paul Matney, says the changes so far have been significant. Hot water finally flows into the sinks of the science labs, and space has been reconfigured to better serve different class sizes. Still, Mr. Matney says, the renovations are a far cry from everything the 11,000-student college needs. Nearly half the classrooms could benefit from computer and audiovisual technology, and the 43-year-old library needs to be modernized.

Enrollment at community colleges has grown by more than 1.4 million in the past three years, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges, often as financing has stagnated, or even decreased. That means more students on waiting lists, larger class sizes, and increased wear and tear on facilities.

At Victor Valley the population has grown from 2,000 students in the 1970s to 13,500 students today, with a waiting list of roughly 1,000.

When money is scarce, fixing things like leaky roofs and outdated air-conditioning systems can often be put on hold; but colleges don't always have time to wait for federal money. Five years ago, Victor Valley was forced to demolish and rebuild its entire gymnasium after the building was deemed a safety hazard. The concrete used in the original foundation placed it at risk during earthquakes—a major concern for a college located within 40 miles of the San Andreas Fault. "That was definitely an unforeseen expense," Mr. Allan says. "If we spent less money on facilities, that could lead to more money for hiring faculty," which could expand the number of classes offered each semester and shrink the waiting list.

Renovating old buildings for better energy efficiency could save a college more than a million dollars a year, estimates Debra G. Rowe, a professor of energy management at Oakland Community College, in Michigan. "If you look at the budgets of community colleges after salaries, utility bills are often the highest item," she says. Ms. Rowe supports the American Jobs Act legislation and believes it would "produce a healthier economy for everybody because it gets rid of needless waste."

Outdated Technologies

Another urgent need is technological renovation in classrooms, most of which were never designed for 21st-century job training. Many programs offered today didn't exist when colleges were built, and courses like photovoltaics, sonography, and aircraft maintenance can't always be offered in a typical classroom—or in the secondhand spaces that some colleges occupy, like former high schools or government buildings.

"A lecture class can take place in a nice room or not so nice, but in the areas of manufacturing and health care, the space makes a huge difference," explains Sally Shields, information coordinator at Spoon River College, in Canton, Ill., which has two campuses, one built in 1972 and one housed in a former high school. The college was recently forced to shut down its welding program, partly because it lacked a proper space to hold the classes, says Ms. Shields.

"Where I've worked, I've seen this is a major concern," says Harvey H. Kaiser, a consultant who specializes in campus-facilities management. "How do we update spaces built in the 60s and 70s for new methods of pedagogy?"

If President Obama's legislation is enacted as planned, states will receive a share of the $5-billion based on their number of community-college students. The money would then be passed on to the institutions with the greatest needs, said Carmel Martin, the Education Department's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, during a news conference in September.

Deferred Maintenance

While many administrators say they will be grateful for whatever money comes through, some fear it will be only a drop in the bucket. "It wouldn't come close to fixing everything," says Mr. Allan, who estimates Victor Valley needs $100-million to fully upgrade its aging buildings. Between new construction and modernization, the nation's community colleges have reported $100-billion in facilities needs, according to the community-college association.

"There's been so much deferred maintenance," says Debbie L. Sydow, president of Onondaga Community College. "This legislation is really coming at a perfect time for us." Onondaga also needs an estimated $100-million to properly renovate its campus, according to a recent needs assessment for State University of New York institutions. Ms. Sydow thinks her college is "probably in better condition" than many other SUNY community colleges.

This isn't the first time that community colleges have been encouraged by promises of money from the federal government. Shortly after his inauguration, in 2009, President Obama proposed a $12-billion plan to rebuild outdated community-college facilities.

That program, known as the American Graduation Initiative, also sought to increase the percentage of students who graduated from two-year colleges and continued on to four-year institutions, to improve remedial education, and to forge stronger ties between colleges and employers. But the plan fell apart during negotiations, and the final bill left colleges with only $2-billion for a career-training program under the Department of Labor.

Many administrators fear the American Jobs Act may end up the same way as the American Graduation Initiative—with little left in the hands of community colleges.

"I sometimes see these federal programs with a jaundiced eye," says Victor Valley's Mr. Allan, after noting a building outside his office window that desperately needs a new roof. "Whether or not the money will actually get to us? I'll believe it when I see it."