Weak Community College Budgets

Survey of state directors of 2-year systems finds erosion even before last fall’s economic collapse hit.
April 8, 2009

PHOENIX -- Community college budgets were in a weakened state even before the full impact of the economic downturn hit. That’s the conclusion of the 2008 survey of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges.

The survey documents an increasing trend of midyear budget cuts -- even before the recession neared its current magnitude -- and notes past state patterns of responding to economic downturns in ways that do not bode well for community colleges or their students.

The survey was released here Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. The study was conducted by Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa; and Terrence A. Tollefson, professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University.

Like much of the annual data on higher education being released this year, the report has a mix of information collected before and after last fall’s economic collapse. As a result, the authors write, the findings understate the extent of the economic difficulty facing community colleges.

With that caveat, here are some of the findings:

  • Midyear budget cuts were on the rise even before the economic collapse. In 2007-8, nine states reported midyear cuts that affect community colleges, up from two the year before. Twenty-two states were anticipating midyear cuts for 2008-9, even before the full impact of the recession hit.
  • Funding formulas for community colleges are not being met. Of the 28 states in the survey with formulas, only 10 indicated that their formulas were fully funded in 2007-8.
  • While state directors anticipate budget difficulties for all community colleges in their states – particularly as enrollments go up dramatically – they anticipate rural community colleges having the greatest financial difficulties. In many cases, this is because of inadequate support from local sources.
  • Tuition increases are expected to be a “predominant” approach by states to dealing with a lack of funds for community colleges and the rest of higher education. State directors anticipate them from coast to coast, and many worry that they will hinder the enrollment of low-income students.

In the report accompanying the survey, the authors write that these trends -- and the history of the 2003 recession -- suggest tight times ahead for community colleges and their students. If states simply increase tuition and don’t attempt to meet formula obligations, students will be hurt, the report says.

“It is very clear that the high tuition/ high aid model of student financial aid does not work well, if at all, for low-income students attending community colleges,” the report says. It notes that state directors report that their lawmakers are not aligning policies to promote such policies, but are simply raising tuition.

State directors were “nearly unanimous” in finding that their students will be unable to attend without incurring debt, which discourages many from enrolling. If higher education continues to receive “what’s left on the table” in state budgets -- as has been the case -- the report project serious loss of access for low-income students.


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