At Capacity

Community college leaders gather amid concern about their ability to meet enrollment demands.
April 11, 2005

For community colleges, turning away qualified students isn't just something they don't want to do, it goes against their entire philosophy.

But in the hallways and in sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, which convened over the weekend in Boston, leaders of two-year institutions talked about their frustrations with capacity issues. As states have cut funds or failed to keep up with enrollment growth, de facto enrollment limits have been set -- and students are being turned away.

Likewise, in some states experiencing population growth or where states have decided to encourage more students to enroll in higher education, educators fear that state legislatures aren't always following through with money to pay for that growth.

Tensions over these issues were evident at a session Sunday morning in which officials from Texas, Louisiana and California discussed capacity and growth issues in their states. Eduardo Marti, president of Queensborough Community College and moderator of the session, said the issue boils down to "what are we going to do with students coming to us and the resources are not here." He added that this gap threatens "the whole concept of the community college experience."

Glenda Barron, assistant commissioner of higher education in Texas, who is responsible for two-year colleges in that state, pointed both to successes and to serious challenges there. Texas is in the middle of a campaign to significantly increase college-going rates generally, and for members of various minority groups in particular. As part of that campaign -- which aims eventually to add 500,000 students to higher education -- Texas has seen the number of community college students increase by 88,000 in the last five years.

And those students account for more than half of the enrollment increases in Texas during that period, Barron said, a proportion that is likely to grow in the next decade.

That's the good news, Barron said. The problem is that Texas community colleges don't have room for the new students. State officials estimate that community colleges need to add more than 36 million square feet of space (which would cost more than $4 billion), and hire more than 11,000 new faculty members to teach the new students.

Barron said that those assumptions are based on the ideas that "we'll teach the way we have been teaching," but quickly added that it was "almost impossible" for Texas to hire all those faculty members. Instead, she said the state will need to consider new approaches or it may not meet its goals or enrollment demands.

Walter Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said that his state is largely paying for growth, but he talked about how policies in other sectors of higher education reverberate to community colleges. The Louisiana system is only six years old, and it includes older, formerly uncoordinated colleges, as well as new institutions. Currently, the institutions enroll about 50,000 students in total, and a 15 percent increase is projected for the fall.

But Bumphus said that the system is expecting to grow by about 20,000 students over the next four years. That is because four-year colleges, most of which are currently open admissions, are instituting admissions requirements. That will send to community colleges many students who in past years would have gone to four-year institutions. And that means a need for more classroom space, more instructors, etc.

The comments of Mark Drummond, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, illustrated some of the tensions over these issues. Drummond's system of 110 colleges enrolls almost one-third of all community college students in the United States. And many of those colleges are facing extremely tight budgets.

Drummond's comments focused on efforts to build public support for community colleges, through lobbying and other means. But the questions he received -- apparently all from campus presidents in his system -- ignored his remarks. They focused on students "being turned away."


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