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The Abandonment of Community Colleges

The Abandonment of Community Colleges
January 16, 2006

For at least a decade now, leaders of flagship state universities have been talking about the rapid decline in the state share of their budgets -- a decline viewed by many as both historic and unfortunate.

A new study -- which has yet to be published but is being called a bombshell -- suggests that there has been a similar, historic erosion of government support for community colleges in the last 20 years. Among its findings:

  • In 1980-81, 16 states contributed at least 60 percent of the budgets of their community colleges. By 2000-1, none did so.
  • In 1980-81, 22 states contributed at least half of the budgets for their community colleges, which enrolled 55 percent of all community college students in the country. By 2000-1, only 7 states -- enrolling 8 percent of community college students -- did so.
  • During the 20 years for which data were studied, community colleges saw a sharp increase in the share of their budgets that comes from contracts. While many projects supported by those contracts helped the institutions and their communities, experts on community college finance note that the sources of funds that make up a decreasing share of college budgets tend to support instruction, and that the contracts are unlikely to make up the difference.

All of these findings are in a doctoral dissertation that Billy Roessler defended last month at the University of North Texas. Roessler, registrar at the Tarrant County College South Campus, had a dissertation committee that included some of the top experts on community college finance -- people who say that this data should make people pay more attention to the financial challenges facing community colleges.

"It's totally depressing," said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. "Everyone is hurting and all the government support has been going down. If you had local support, the states cut you more because they knew that they could."

Roessler said that he fears the data point to a challenge to community colleges' historic mission of open access. "We're clearly having students pay more, and that undermines their ability to enroll," he said.

For his study, Roessler used a classification system Katsinas developed to examine community colleges by their geographic area (urban, suburban, rural). While the trends were generally the same in the three categories, there were significant differences in magnitude. (The percentages shown do not add to 100 percent because numerous small categories have been excluded here.)

Share of Community College Budgets by Source of Funds

Source of Funds 1981 2001
Rural    
--State appropriations 48.1% 37.3%
--Local appropriations 15.6% 11.8%
--Tuition and fees 14.2% 18.2%
--Contracts   9.4% 22.2%
Suburban    
--State appropriations 45.4% 31.8%
--Local appropriations 20.3% 20.4%
--Tuition and fees 17.1% 20.9%
--Contracts   7.1% 16.2%
Urban    
--State appropriations 47.0% 31.8%
--Local appropriations 17.4% 13.8%
--Tuition and fees 16.0% 19.1%
--Contracts   9.3% 26.9%

Roessler said that the only good news in this data was that suburban community colleges had been able to maintain the same percentage of local support -- something he speculated was due to the fast growth in those areas.

When he started the study, Roessler said, he expected to find a decline in the share of government support in community college budgets during the time period he examined. "I was anticipating a dropoff. The surprise was how large," he said.

Katsinas said that this analysis was significant because these trends can easily be hidden by annual reports on increases in state appropriations for various colleges. He also said that the rise in contract funds had many implications. Community colleges are increasingly dependent, he said, on programs that may not relate directly to student instruction.

"Creating economic development programs is the big unfunded mandate," he said.

Katsinas said that the trends since 2001 -- years of tight state budgets until last year -- have almost certainly exacerbated the trends the study found.

For 45 states, Roessler was able to obtain enough data to show the percentage of community college budgets that came from the states and from local governments in 1981 and 2001. (Complete, comparable data were not available for Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Dakota.) Those figures follow.

Average Share of Community College Budgets From Appropriations

State State Funds 1981 State Funds 2001 Local Funds 1981 Local Funds 2001
Alabama 60.6% 43.3%   0.9%   0.5%
Arizona 22.1% 15.2% 42.6% 39.1%
Arkansas 58.5% 55.1%  0.0%  0.0%
California 60.3% 32.9% 19.6% 20.3%
Colorado 40.7% 32.5%   7.7%   9.5%
Connecticut 67.3% 59.3%  0.0%  0.0%
Delaware 75.6% 56.3%  0.0%  0.0%
Florida 60.4% 47.5%  0.0%  0.0%
Georgia 57.6% 50.1%  0.0%  0.0%
Idaho 47.1% 30.1%  16.9% 13.1%
Illinois 27.1% 15.9%  32.1%  29.8%
Indiana 43.5% 40.1%  0.0%  0.0%
Iowa 41.0% 29.8%  8.3%   6.8%
Kansas 26.1% 22.5% 38.7% 34.3%
Maine 65.9% 49.6%  0.9%  0.0%
Maryland 34.3% 26.7% 26.3% 22.2%
Massachusetts 60.2% 52.6%   0.4%  0.0%
Michigan 35.2% 25.7% 22.4% 23.6%
Minnesota 49.4% 44.0%  0.0%  0.0%
Mississippi 47.4% 39.4% 12.1%  7.6%
Missouri 36.2% 29.0% 22.4% 19.3%
Montana 42.6% 25.7% 26.4% 19.4%
Nebraska 32.5% 44.5% 35.0%   9.7%
Nevada 65.6% 58.9%  0.0%  0.0%
New Hampshire 65.5% 40.1%  0.0%  0.0%
New Jersey 26.3% 19.1% 28.3% 23.4%
New Mexico 32.6% 32.9% 34.1% 23.4%
New York 36.3% 24.9% 22.4% 14.8%
North Carolina 69.1% 46.9% 10.2% 10.1%
North Dakota 47.1% 39.4%   3.5%  0.0%
Ohio 42.4% 37.1% 11.6%  9.9%
Oklahoma 61.5% 44.4%   5.1% 11.2%
Oregon 28.4% 31.2% 33.6% 14.8%
Pennsylvania 27.9% 26.5% 21.9% 16.2%
Rhode Island 69.3% 47.8%  0.0%  0.0%
South Carolina 51.7% 39.7%   7.1%   8.4%
Tennessee 64.2% 49.2%  0.0%  0.0%
Texas 50.8% 37.3% 13.3% 15.4%
Utah 54.0% 42.0%  0.0%  0.0%
Vermont 44.6% 10.9%  0.0%  0.0%
Virginia 69.7% 53.3%  0.0%  0.3%
Washington 67.6% 39.7%  0.1%  0.0%
West Virginia 70.9% 45.7%  0.0%  0.0%
Wisconsin 21.7% 17.8% 49.1% 45.6%
Wyoming 51.5% 39.7% 22.9% 17.0%

 

 

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