Community Colleges

State Directors of Community Colleges See Bleak Financial Times Ahead

San Diego Community College District

Community-college directors in 16 states said their campuses lack capacity to meet student demand. Here, students from the San Diego Community College District protest budget cuts in California that have shut students out of classes.
September 24, 2009

State directors of community colleges in half of the states expect to face midyear reductions in their state appropriations, according to survey results being released on Thursday of members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges.

The community-college directors also expressed concern in the survey about potential shortfalls in their budgets for the next fiscal year, when money from the federal economic-stimulus bill will be gone in many states. The survey was conducted by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. Data were collected from July 5 through August 12.

Thirty-two of the 49 state directors of community colleges surveyed said the stimulus money was not used for one-time expenditures and investments. Directors in most states said the money was used instead to backfill shortfalls in state revenue.

Even though there is unease about the long-term financial picture for community colleges, the authors of the report, "Funding and Access Issues in Public Higher Education: A Community College Perspective," said the federal stimulus money was used for the purpose for which it was intended.

"Intervention by the Obama administration clearly prevented a bad situation from becoming much, much worse," said Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. Mr. Katsinas, along with Terrence A. Tollefson, professor emeritus in the department of educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University, conducted the survey.

George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the survey results point to the need for community colleges to do better long-range planning.

"Those who will succeed best will have built up rainy-day funds," he said. "If colleges don't have flexibility, they will have to reduce course offerings and make other painful cuts."

Directors of community colleges in every state but South Dakota participated in the survey. That state accounts for only 0.3 percent of the nation's community-college enrollment.

Among the survey's key findings:

  • The directors predicted that tuition at community colleges will rise at more than double the rate of inflation for the 2009-10 fiscal year.
  • In a period of all-time record enrollments, the directors predicted that state operating-budget support for community colleges will decline by 1 percent in this fiscal year.
  • By a ratio of 3 to 1, directors said high unemployment is straining the capacity of their community colleges to retrain workers for new jobs.
  • Three of four directors in states with spending formulas for community colleges said their states did not fully finance the formulas in the 2008-9 fiscal year.

Budget Drivers

The survey results highlight the struggles community colleges faced in the recession as their enrollments surged and their budgets were cut. One common response to the crunch has been to raise tuition.

The average tuition increase the directors predicted at their colleges for the 2009-10 fiscal year was five percent.

When asked about key budget drivers in their states for 2008-9, the directors most often cited the recession. Medicaid, spending on elementary and secondary education, and the federal stimulus money were in a virtual three-way tie for second place. The directors ranked even spending on prisons above higher education as a key budget driver.

Those state budget priorities speak to the "severe competition public education faces, and may indicate a major public-relations challenge higher education and community colleges face to promote the cause of access," Mr. Katsinas said.

As in previous survey reports, directors said they expected rural community colleges to face the greatest fiscal strain. But for the first time since the survey began in 2003, more than half of respondents said they believe their urban community colleges will face significant fiscal strain as well.

"This is a clear sign of the severity of the recession," Mr. Katsinas said.

Of the six key community-college functions identified in the survey, the directors reported that five have been weakened over the last two years. Those include general education and transfer-oriented functions; vocational, occupational, and technical education; noncredit community services; developmental education; and the fine and cultural arts.

Only noncredit federal work-force training programs have been strengthened, according to the directors surveyed.

The directors predicted that two of the functions would continue to weaken over this fiscal year: general education and transfer; and vocational-, occupational-, and technical-education programs. The latter function is especially significant because the role community colleges play in providing that training is critical to helping states prepare workers for high-wage jobs in high-demand areas such as allied-health fields and nursing, and engineering technology.

"If state operating budgets are cut as predicted, it may be difficult for community colleges to change their program mix to help America's work force retool from recession," the report's authors conclude.

As with last year's survey, state-based student aid (both need-based and merit-based) continues to lag behind tuition increases. By a 2-to-1 ratio, survey respondents said they disagreed that state spending on aid programs is keeping pace with tuition increases.

Concerns About Meeting Student Demand

On other fronts, the survey examined capacity issues at two-year colleges.

Half of the respondents said their community colleges have the capacity to meet current and projected demands of high-school graduates, but 16 said their two-year institutions did not. Those who said their colleges lacked capacity included directors in states with fast-growing Hispanic populations such as California and Nevada.

Massachusetts is among the states that doubt they can keep up with the demand, according to the survey. But at Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, the state's largest two-year institution, college officials are making the necessary adjustments to deal with the high enrollment. The community college had projected a 7-percent enrollment increase for this fall. But, to date, enrollment is up by 17 percent over last year, reaching almost 11,000 students, the highest ever for the community college.

To respond to the high student demand, the college added 108 class sections to the fall schedule over the summer. After an emergency meeting in early September, 40 more classes were added.

And, in a first for Bunker Hill, officials created midnight classes. Colleen A. Roach, executive director of communications and marketing at Bunker Hill, said there are plans for more midnight classes for spring semester. She said the college has every expectation that enrollment will continue to increase and wants to be prepared.