Money, Mission Creep, and Other Nagging Problems

How can community colleges begin to resolve the major challenges they face?

July 16, 2014

This past spring, I wrote about all the good things that two-year colleges do for people and their towns. And in case you didn’t pick up on it when you read those columns, I’m every inch the True Believer—an unabashed cheerleader for community colleges.

At the same time, I don’t view them through rose-colored glasses. I realize that two-year colleges today face more challenges than ever before, some of which may well be existential. The "community-college movement," which began in earnest in the early 1960s, is now a little more than half a century old. If it’s going to survive the next half-century—if two-year colleges are going to continue doing all the great things I talked about in my recent columns—we must recognize the challenges and begin developing strategies to meet them.

In my next few columns, I’d like to lay out some of the major difficulties I see facing today’s two-year colleges. Some readers will, no doubt, take issue with my list. Things that I see as problems may be regarded by others as wonderful innovations—and that, as far as I’m concerned, is part of the problem.

Nor am I, for the most part, going to offer solutions. I’ll leave that for another time, and perhaps for experts who know more than I do about complicated aspects of higher education like technology and finances. In all likelihood, nothing I say will be news to those who care enough about community colleges to read this column. My goal here is to spark a national debate on some key issues that few people in the community-college sector, or in academe more broadly, seem willing to talk openly about.

So I’m going to talk about them. And then perhaps we can all start talking about them, until we eventually reach some consensus as to just what the problems are and what we can do about them.

Money. Back in February, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech at Central Arizona College’s Faculty Development Day. As I waited offstage for my turn to speak, I listened to the college president lead a discussion with faculty members. I told a colleague later that I could have closed my eyes and been listening to any community-college president in the country talking with any group of community-college faculty members.

In such meetings, the No. 1 topic is always the same: money. How much are we going to have this year? What are we going to be able to afford? More to the point, what are we not going to be able to afford? Please, we’re big girls and boys, just tell us: How bad is it?

Money has been an issue at two-year colleges for as long as I can remember, which is a pretty long time, the forthcoming academic year being my 28th as a community-college faculty member. During that time, practically every faculty-development day or fall convocation I’ve attended sounded just like the one at Central Arizona.

Of course, things have gotten worse in recent years in the wake of the Great Recession (at my college, faculty members haven’t received a raise since 2008), but, to be honest, they’re only marginally worse. I clearly remember years when the national economy was supposed to be good, yet we were still talking about budget cuts in our campus meetings.

This is not just a problem for two-year colleges. As a recent article in The Chronicle noted, state funding for public colleges and universities has been declining nationwide for 25 years. But I do think it’s especially a problem for community colleges, for a couple of reasons. One is that, in many states, two-year colleges are already the least-well-funded institutions. Whereas the big universities, with their nationally recognized sports teams and large fan bases, sometimes seem to have to think of creative ways to spend their money, community colleges are constantly trying to get by on a shoestring budget.

It’s true that in many parts of the country, two-year campuses have other funding sources, such as local property taxes. But those revenues are not generally in addition to, but rather in place of, state dollars. And the decline in property values brought on by the recession has affected those funding sources, too—not to mention that local governments have to make the same kinds of tough choices about how to spend their money that state governments do.

Another reason community colleges are particularly hard hit by declining public funding is that, to make up the difference, we’ve had to raise tuition. That’s true at nearly all state-supported institutions, but in the case of two-year colleges, raising tuition directly conflicts with one of our fundamental values: affordability. Historically, a primary advantage of attending a community college has been that it’s much cheaper. At what point does hiking tuition to make up for declining public support begin to eat into that perception—and, more important, into the reality?

If community colleges are going to remain viable options for the students we serve—and especially for those students that only we serve—then elected officials and community leaders are going to have to give some serious thought to their priorities.

The completion agenda. Speaking of money, the recent emphasis on college completion at the federal level has led states to create their own completion plans, many of which alter the way colleges and universities are funded. Before, most institutions received their "slice of the pie" based almost exclusively on enrollment. Now retention and graduation rates will be factored in much more heavily.

That’s not altogether a bad thing. There’s no question that we need a renewed focus on completion. But the potential challenge for community colleges lies in how those rates will be determined and whether two-year campuses will be held to exactly the same standards as four-year institutions, even though the two sectors have very different missions.

Community colleges typically accept large numbers of students who would never get admitted into most four-year institutions. And while many two-year campuses do a remarkable job of helping those students succeed, there’s no way, statistically speaking, that students with 800 or 900 on the SAT are going to graduate at the same rate as students with 1300 or 1400. If community colleges are evaluated by the same metrics used for flagship and regional universities—looking only at output without regard for input—of course our colleges are going to appear less effective by comparison.

Community colleges are already the poorest academic institutions in most states. Under new state funding models emphasizing completion, will two-year colleges fall even further behind?

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that even our best students don’t usually graduate. While there are clear advantages to earning an associate degree—ease of transfer, having an actual degree to show for those two years of study—many students simply can’t be bothered. The ones who start at community colleges because they want to transfer to a four-year university are looking to do exactly that: transfer, as soon as possible. Even if they stay with us for two years, and earn up to 60 semester hours, they may decide it’s not worth it to pick up the extra class or two needed to earn the associate degree.

And then there are the thousands of students who, as dual enrollment or transient students, just take a course or two at a community college. How do they figure into the completion metrics?

Clearly, these are all issues that require a great deal of thought at the state and national levels, before a well-meaning focus on completion does unintended damage to our community-college system.

Mission creep. I started to write: "In response to these challenges, many presidents, system leaders, and trustees at community colleges have begun working to expand their programs." But that wouldn’t be entirely true. Program expansion—aka "mission creep"—has been going on for a long time, and it’s only partly due to external challenges.

By "mission creep," I’m talking about two-year colleges expanding their roles and essentially attempting to become four-year colleges, at least on a small scale. In many states, including both Georgia (where I work) and Florida, the majority of two-year institutions have dropped the word "community" from their names and begun calling themselves "state colleges," signifying that they offer some four-year programs.

I understand why. In most states, colleges that offer four-year degrees are better funded than those that offer associate degrees. Of course, if every public college is a "state college," there will still be some that offer primarily two-year programs, and others that offer primarily four-year programs, and the latter will still get more money from the state than the former. So I’m not entirely sure what’s gained. But I do understand the reasoning.

I also recognize that, in some parts of the country, especially in remote rural areas, it’s a tremendous advantage for community-college students to be able to earn four-year degrees right there on their local two-year campus, without having to move away from home or drive a long distance. Community colleges used to accomplish that goal by forming partnerships with four-year institutions, but now more and more are trying to offer the bachelor’s degrees themselves.

My concern is that, as two-year colleges expand their purview, their core mission of providing affordable access to higher education for underserved populations will become diluted. I worry that tuition will go up sharply to cover the costs of new programs, putting higher education out of reach for many. I worry that admission standards will rise, and open doors will close, until eventually there will no place at all in higher education for the students we have traditionally served. I worry that we are selling our birthright for a mess of pottage, which will taste very bitter indeed once we discover that we are still stepchildren, despite our fancy-sounding new names, and that we have abandoned our unique place in the higher-education universe to become just another regional campus.

Most of all, I worry that what’s driving mission creep is not a desire to serve students but rather an attempt to build the egos, not to mention the résumés, of community-college presidents. In my opinion, faculty members should be very careful about letting their institutions go down that road.

To what extent do community-college faculty members have any control over such matters? That’s one of the challenges I’ll talk about in next month’s column.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @HigherEdSpeak.