Solution for Slumping State Support

Maine's community college system creates a statewide foundation to garner private donations; it has already raised more than $6 million.
September 27, 2010

The Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, a newly created development organization courting donations for the state’s seven two-year institutions, has begun a $10 million fund-raising campaign to help the system cope with booming enrollment amid decreasing financial support from the state government.

The Maine Community College System, established in 2003, is one of the youngest in the country. In the past seven years, however, its enrollment has grown by a staggering 77 percent — from 10,127 to 17,979. Enrollment is up nearly 10 percent, or 1,576 students, just since last fall. The system projects that its enrollment could reach 20,000 by 2015.

“I am enormously proud of what our colleges have done,” said John Fitzsimmons, the system's president, in a statement. “But the challenge remains: we do not have the capacity to serve all those who want to enroll and who need a college education to achieve economic security.”

State appropriations for community colleges have taken a hit in recent years. In the past decade, state funding per full-time equivalent student fell to $3,150 from $4,350. Now, in a state that currently has a two-year budget shortfall nearing $1 billion — from a base budget of more than $6 billion — educators expect that further cuts are on the horizon. Accordingly, the state’s community colleges turned away about 4,000 applicants this fall alone because of lack of capacity. It turned away a similar number last fall.

Rather than pass some of the cost on to students — tuition has been frozen for 7 of the past 10 years and remains among the lowest in the region — the system has started looking to private donors.

In January, the system established the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, and since then it has raised $6.4 million during the “quiet” period of the $10 million campaign. Among those that have already made high-profile donations are the local businesses L.L. Bean and Poland Spring Water. Senator Olympia J. Snowe and her husband, the former Maine Governor John R. McKernan Jr., made contributions as well. McKernan is also executive chairman of the Education Management Corporation, the publicly traded operator of such for-profit institutions as Argosy University and the Art Institutes.

Foundation officials note that they expect most of the funds to come from state businesses that see the community colleges as serving them, in contrast to the development work many four-year institutions do among alumni and other individuals.

“Our colleges’ needs far outpace the minimum we’re looking for in this campaign,” said Elizabeth O. Shorr, president of the foundation. “We’re just working really hard to expand access to our colleges when we have to turn away more and more every year. In tough economic times, we have to fill our budget some way.”

Shorr noted that the state’s colleges were looking at funds raised by the foundation to serve “immediate needs,” such as capital upgrades and new equipment and technology. For example, the foundation estimates that replacing all of the college’s equipment and technology would cost between $6 and $8 million per year. Also, the foundation notes that nearly 100 of the system’s programs are at or near capacity and are in need of expansion.

Currently, she said, the campaign is not soliciting donations for the colleges’ operational budgets. Options for the future expansion of the foundation and its role in funding the colleges are open at the moment, she added, noting that officials are currently working on a long-term strategic plan. Still, Shorr noted that the foundation aims to be around for the "long haul," in recognition that the system will likely need private donations to accommodate growth.

“We simply don’t want to lose momentum during a tough economic time,” said Helen Pelletier, spokeswoman for the state system. “There’s some fear that if we stop, it’ll be a lot harder to get the system going again. We want to be able to maintain the status quo as much as possible, and that’s what this fund raising effort is aimed at. We think it’s innovative.”

There are some other state-level community college foundations, such as those in California, Kentucky and Mississippi, all of which have been around for a decade or more.

“Statewide community college foundations are not new,” wrote Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, in an e-mail. “What's new is the severe fiscal strain all of public higher education, including community colleges, is operating under. We are right now finishing our 2010 annual report of access and funding issues in public higher education, that surveys state community college directors, and found only 11 states have a plan for the end of ARRA stimulus funds. The most common approach to state planning appears to be ‘pray and hope’ for state tax revenues to recover.”

Other experts expect more community colleges to look to private donations in the future.

“It is becoming less of an oddity to have a community college have a focus on development,” wrote Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and interim chair of Iowa State University’s Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, in an e-mail. “As state budgets get thinner and thinner, colleges are forced to seek out new revenue streams.”

Hagedorn expects the methods of community college fund raisers to change as development in the sector becomes more common.

“Most donors to universities are alumni who have been carefully cultivated and served,” Hagedorn noted. “Community colleges typically do not keep communications open with their alumni. Most do not keep any contact with their alumni. As a result, most CC graduates do not identify with the CC as an alma mater. I think we will see this changing with time.

"Do I think this is a good idea? Yes. All postsecondary institutions need to acknowledge that donors can be very helpful to providing the funds necessary to serve their students. Many community colleges have not explored the options of naming their buildings or providing endowed professorships. We will see that change.”


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