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I don’t usually do bummers for Fridays, but I’m seeing a pattern, and feel obligated to note it.

A short tale of community college budgets in America over the last seven years:

First, they shifted the burden to students. Then the students went away.

It’s a bit antiseptic, but basically correct, as far as it goes. IHE’s story about Tidewater CC, in Virginia, could have been about nearly any community college in my own state. As state and local support have failed to keep up with costs, and enrollments have dropped, administrators have had to find new ways to split the difference between tuition increases and service (and staff) cuts.  And the underlying demographics don’t suggest a turnaround for years to come.

As Yogi Berra noted, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. Community college enrollments tend to be countercyclical to the economy, and we haven’t had a recession for a while; I assume that we will, at some point, and we’ll get a short-term boost from that. My own governor has plans for free community college, which has led to enrollment gains in the states that have tried it. We’re still in early days, legislatively, but hope springs eternal.

The Atlantic has a piece speculating, not for the first time, that declines in tax support for public higher education are tied to the decreasing percentage of college students who are white. It wouldn’t be the first time such a relationship held. For instance, tax support on a per-student basis for most flagship state universities is far higher than for most community colleges. (Malcolm Gladwell noted a few years ago that the per-student value of Princeton’s tax exemption on its endowment is far higher than support for either Rutgers or community college students.  Princeton is notably whiter.) Nationally, the correlation is strong.

At the state level, though, it isn’t necessarily.  New Hampshire and Vermont fund their community colleges badly, and both are among the whitest states in America.  New York and California are more diverse, but fund community colleges comparatively better. I believe there’s a connection to race, but it doesn’t do much to explain some rural areas.

Douglas Webber offers an analysis based on following the money -- always a good place to start -- and concludes that much of the money moved from education to healthcare.  He may actually be understating the shift, given the rapidly-increasing part of college budgets that goes to health insurance for employees. For example, at my own college, the total cost (split between employer and employee) for family coverage is over $30,000 per year. At that level, even relatively modest percentage increases are substantial in absolute terms. (And last year it went up thirteen percent, more than swamping every other category of expense or revenue.) That money shows up in the “education” category, but it’s really healthcare spending.  Get the healthcare spending under control, and college budgets will suddenly gain breathing room.

The issues aren’t confined to the public sector.  This week we heard that the College of St. Joseph, in Vermont, is considering closing. Unforgiving enrollment declines, combined with unforgiving health insurance increases, have squeezed it.  The same could be said of Mount Ida College.

Of course, what seem like inexorable trends are really outcomes of political choices. We could, if we chose to as a society, decide that mortality is involuntary, and therefore that healthcare shouldn’t be treated as a consumer good. That alone would relieve much of the pressure that colleges are facing. We could also decide, as a society, that millennials and Gen Z should get the same level of subsidy that the Boomers got, and that students of color should get the same respect that white students get.  We could even decide, as a society, that investing in the future is our best hope by far. Someone might point out that, say, the workers whose taxes will support the Boomers in retirement are in college or high school now. These are all available options.

Yes, college leaders need to be clever, driven, resourceful, and collaborative. Absolutely true. But at some point, you need something to work with. Blue Cross doesn’t accept “clever” in payment. Demographics aren’t going to save us; we need to make some clear political choices.

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