• September 2, 2015

Uncertain Finances Threaten Community Colleges' Ability to Help Meet Obama's Graduation Goal

The recession has hit community colleges hard, and the sector's financial fortunes are unlikely to improve soon, according to a report on a new survey of state community-college directors.

Enrollment numbers are expected to grow while state operating dollars will continue to be scarce, the survey found.

The report, "Uncertain Recovery: Access and Funding Issues in Public Higher Education," is being released today by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

A majority of the state directors who responded to the survey said they have not planned for the end of the federal stimulus money that has been used to avert state budget cuts to education. As a consequence, tuition is expected to continue to increase as state budgets are cut and create access problems for students.

More broadly, the financial strain threatens to undermine President Obama's college-completion agenda, the survey found. The president wants to greatly increase the number of Americans with college degrees by 2020 so the United States can once again be atop the world in the proportion of residents with postsecondary degrees or certificates.

The survey of members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges was conducted July 15 through August 27. State directors, all 51 of whom took part, could choose whether or not to respond to individual survey questions. As a result, the number of responses received for different survey questions varies.

Janice N. Friedel, a co-author of the report, said community colleges are undergoing a financial "assault" that threatens their status as open-access institutions.

"Community colleges should be expanding, not contracting," said Ms. Friedel, a professor in the educational leadership and policy studies department at California State University at Northridge.

Ms. Friedel said growth at community colleges is essential because of the diverse student population they serve.

Among the survey's key findings:

  • Only four states this year offered unemployed workers free tuition to attend community college, compared with 11 states a year ago.
  • Tuition at community colleges is predicted to rise this next year at an average of five times the rate of inflation. Public four-year institutions would see a similar jump.
  • Enrollment increases are predicted at community colleges in 35 states, with an estimated average increase of 9 percent this next year.
  • A third of respondents said their community colleges are not prepared to accommodate the current numbers of high-school graduates nor the numbers of graduates they are projected to see in the future.

Fiscal Strains

President Obama has put community colleges at the center of his higher-education agenda, but the push has done little to secure more state money for the institutions. Last year community colleges reported more midyear budget cuts than any other public higher-education sector. Just six of 29 respondents reported that their states fully financed their community-college formulas, the lowest of any year of the survey.

Concerns over the economic downturn dominated the budget process in most states last year. The community-college directors most often cited the recession when asked about key budget drivers in their states during 2009-10. Medicaid and the federal stimulus money were tied for second, and no other item (including higher education) was cited by more than 50 percent of respondents. Elementary and secondary education received its lowest rating as a budget driver since the survey began in 2003, dropping from first just two years ago to fourth this year.

All types of community colleges—urban, suburban, and rural—are expected to face great fiscal challenges next year, with rural community colleges facing the greatest strain, in part because of low property-tax wealth in rural areas.

State operating support for all education sectors is predicted by respondents to decline next year. The predicted average cut of 4 percent in state operating-budget support for elementary and secondary education was the largest of any education sector. Respondents predicted operating-budget cuts for community colleges averaging 1.9 percent, compared with 3.2 percent for historically black colleges, 1.4 percent for regional universities, and 1.9 percent for flagship universities.

An overwhelming majority of respondents predicted that the lack of state revenues will be a major budget challenge, and budget gaps are predicted in three of four states next year. The end of the federal stimulus money is expected to result in operating budget cuts in 21 states next year.

"There is a lot of uncertainty across the states," said Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center and co-author of the report. "At the same time, there has been little long-term planning. The primary strategy appears to be: Pray, and hope for a state-revenue rebound."

Among the strategies respondents said they planned to use to close budget gaps include across-the-board cuts, deferring maintenance, program cuts, restrictions on out-of-state travel, furloughs, and layoffs.

Unprepared for Enrollment Surge

In the midst of budget cuts, capacity is a significant concern. Some two-year colleges have begun to offer midnight classes or try other scheduling strategies to handle the enrollment surge.

The number of 18- to 24-year-olds in America will grow by one million, and the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 will grow by three million between 2009 and 2012, according to the soon-to-be published results of another study by the Education Policy Center. Even though a majority of respondents to the community-college survey said their institutions are prepared to accommodate current and future high school graduates, a third of respondents said they were not prepared. The states whose community-college directors said they are not prepared include such large ones as California, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina.

Half of respondents said their community colleges have sufficient capacity to serve current and projected numbers of older returning adult students, but nearly as many did not. Eighteen states, including the four mentioned above, said they did not expect to have the capacity.

"This 'tidal wave' of students knocking at the door for access to postsecondary education programs and services will occur whether or not public postsecondary institutions are funded to serve them," Mr. Katsinas said.


1. jffoster - October 27, 2010 at 07:21 am

So they / "we" don't meet "President Obama's Graduation Goal. He can prattle all the education goals he wants to, but nothing in the Constitution gives him the authority to enforce "graduation goals". We are no more obligated to meet that goal than we are the United Nations Orginization's "Millineal Development Goals". It is the President's Hope, not an enforceable goal.

Nor are we required to meet any "Lumina" goals. Nobody elected them Reichsfu"hrer Erziehung.

2. rsmithwhite - October 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

So you believe Education is the United States is moving in a positive direction? Or do you just have a problem with a "President" who desires for Americans to get back in the playing field with higher education, because if you haven't noticed we are falling behind in the global world. High School and college drop out rates are extremely high. If something isn't done, if we do not raise the level of expectations, the United States will be a country of dummies, bluffing their way into a global economy, and in the real global world, we won't be able to bully our way in- because when other countries are smarter and are producing an overwhelming number of intelligent people..... well you know what they say, "to the victor goes the spoils of war".

To suggest "we are no more obligated to meet that goal than we are the UNO's" You sound like an idiot. I can understand resentment for the president, but to throw the expectation that all Americans should incease their education goals, back out there like a sulking child sounds utterly ridiculous, considering the number of ignorant people are walking around in the US.

3. getwell - October 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

@rsmithwhite (2): Does name-calling make you feel any better? How about trying a more adult approach...that of polite debate; not ridiculing someone's opinion.

Let those who desire an education, pay for it themselves. My father earned his college degree at age 42, by attending night and weekend classes for five years, while holding down two jobs and raising five children. He paid his own way.

We don't owe anyone an education in this country, they are free to pursue and earn it at their own expense...not mine. I've already paid for my two degrees (BS & MS) and raised my own children, who are paying for their own now.

Let's stop this entitlement mentality within the educational arena. I think it is admirable to advocate higher educational for all, but another thing to ask taxpayers to continually foot the bill. The percentage of drop-outs in colleges doesn't bode well as ammunition either.

4. rlsmith1994 - October 27, 2010 at 11:02 am

That didn't take long for Goodwin's Law to kick in, which states that the longer a debate lasts, the more likely one is to stoop to a ridiculos Nazi/German/Hitler analogy. They allow the person to sound intellectual, without trying hard or applying any intellectual substance. People did it to Nixon, to Reagan, to GW, and now to Obama. You may disagree with their policies, but none of them were/are Nazis.

5. kmcarey - October 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

Goals allow a large group of people to work toward a common purpose. They set standards for improvement and unite efforts toward a desired outcome. This is basic organizational management, used by governments and Fortune 500 companies alike. They are not a decree handed down from above, but an essential way to achieve progress.

As always, the answer is not on one extreme or the other, but rather somewhere in the middle. Education should not be fully funded by either the government or the individual. A better educated nation leads to economic improvement and benefits everyone. At the individual level, education increases one's career options and earning power. So, we need tuition but it should be reasonable enough that every generation does not have to make the kinds of sacrifices that getwell's father admirably did to get it. You should work hard and pay your own way, but the fees must be reasonable enough to ensure that you can still keep some quality of life and be there for your family.

6. 11132507 - October 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

All of the "I/my dad/whoever paid for college my/him/herself" talk has to take an historical perspective into account. A lot of hardworking, focused people simply can't afford to do that anymore unless they narrow down their choices significantly, and for many students (especially in this economy), not even then. We all talk about community colleges as affordable because they cost a lot less than 4-year schools, but if you're struggling to feed your family and pay your rent, then even the relatively low cost in that sector is money you simply don't have. To say that the government/taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill through aid programs is selfish and short-sighted, because a) society benefits by having a more educated workforce (hence President Obama's goal) and b) if you needed and qualified for the help, it'd be there for you too, getwell.

As for jffoster's criticism of the President's goal of a more educated populace, that comes across to me like Fox News-style kneejerk criticism of anything Obama says. He says the sun rises in the East, we'll hear the right slamming that as unproven science and a socialist agenda. We lament the evidence that other countries have "passed us by" in the global economy...well, guess what they invested in?

7. jffoster - October 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm

No's 2 & 6, I didn't criticize the President's goal at all in my post. Actually I think he's been a tolerably good president under the circumstances. What I attacked was the kind of reaction as exemplified in the headline in the original post that we see all too often now in CHE and other education commentaria implying and often outright asserting that we must meet the President's goal, or Lumina's goal, or both, simply because He is THE PRESIDENT, or simply because it is LUMINA.

8. 11132507 - October 27, 2010 at 01:14 pm

jffoster - I didn't detect any slant in the wording of the headline...it says that there might not be enough money to meet the President's goals. Didn't pass judgment about the value of the goals themselves. Your post, on the other hand, immediately refers to him "prattling" (not generally a word with positive connotations), and you defy his goals by pointing out that no one is obligated to meet them and that he can't enforce them (you can't make me, so there). And then you wrap up by connecting the dots from Lumina to the 3rd Reich in one step.

But all you were attacking was the Chronicle's choice of words in the headline?

9. jffoster - October 27, 2010 at 06:11 pm

No 8. I "defy" the President's Graduation goals? "Defy"? Thank you. You've illustrated what I am objecting to. The Constitution does not give the President nor the Federal Government in general authority over education in the United States. It isn't the President's suggesting targets, or ideals, or "goals" that I object to so much as it is the attitude that his word is a decree and we are obligated to try to meet them. It isn['t, not on education, and we aren't. The President's setting of Education "goals" (pace for the Service Academies and certain other Federal schools) is simply not a "defiable" order. It is in fact no legitimate order at all.

10. jffoster - October 27, 2010 at 06:29 pm

No 8, I "defy" the President's goals. "Defy."? Thank you for making my point. The United States are a Federal Republic and the Constitution does not vest general authority over Education or Graduation rates in he President nor the Congress of the United States. He has made suggestions or proposals. They are not orders nor decrees.

11. alexisalexander - October 27, 2010 at 06:39 pm

Do any of you actually work in the Community Colleges? I do, and I can tell you that we are backed to the wall, trying to provide services and classes to students with cut after cut, layoffs, service reductions and a huge dip in morale.

But I guess making these types of esoteric arguments and taking pot shots is easier than actually addressing our current reality.

12. prof_truthteller - November 02, 2010 at 10:26 am

More fallout from the "no taxes" agenda. Want limited government? Why not move to Somalia?

An educated populace is critical to the functioning of a civil society. The goal of improving the education level of all citizens is an admirable goal, regardless of who proposes it, and to argue against it is just plain mean-spirited. What, you want everyone to be ignorant?

The State (which is us) has an interest in safe, healthy, smart, productive citizens. A very small percentage will accomplish this on their own. Most need help from friends, family, or social programs of some kind. The return on investment is huge. My Dad went to college on the GI Bill. He was thus able to support his family and contribute to the community.

For-profit corporations do not share this interest, and are the primary supporters of the "no taxes" agenda. Narrowly focused on their internal goals, corporations can't see the bigger picture and can't participate in building a better future for us all.

Community colleges are the new high school. They are incredibly cheap- to the students, yes, but also to the taxpayer. Calculate the increased earnings (and future taxes paid) by CC graduates vs. high school only. I bet that we (the State) would actually turn a profit.

But even if that does not satisfy the wackadoo "no taxes" crowd, and I'm not sure anything could, consider the consequences of living in a society of poor and ignorant people. I mean, the rich stupid people are bad enough.

13. canisinlibris - November 02, 2010 at 10:32 am

The single most important thing Community Colleges need in order to graduate more of our students is better prepared students to begin with. When are we going to deal with the failures of our K-12 system and the entitlement attitude that social promotion fosters among our young people?

If students did not have to take remedial courses before beginning college level work, and if more of them understood from the beginning that coming to class and completing all assignments is required, but does not by itself guarantee a passing grade, then taxpayers and students could get a lot more bang for the tuition buck. It wouldn't hurt for students to understand that the instructor teaching the course has earned their polite attention, if not their actual respect, by virtue of advanced degrees and other professional accomplishments.

Until we get our money's worth from the K-12 system, we are unlikely to improve our graduation rates from Community Colleges, unless we intend to pass out degrees like candy, which would be the easy way to satisfy the government's desire for higher graduation rates.

14. mdanieltex - November 10, 2010 at 07:37 pm

Jffoster is correct that the president cannot enforce any graduation goals. The federal government may not have any authority in education, but it does have authority to tax and spend. Federal funding will be tied to meeting those goals and you can be sure the community colleges will do whatever is necessary to get that money. But graduating more students will do nothing to raise the nation's education level; it will just result in passing more students to meet those goals---especially since some states are now using class completion and graduation rate in funding.

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