'Triage' Funding for Community Colleges

As state budget deliberations unfold across the country, community colleges in some states appear to have been cushioned from the worst, facing cuts that — at least on the surface — are less severe than those to their four-year counterparts.

March 31, 2011

As state budget deliberations unfold across the country, community colleges in some states appear to have been cushioned from the worst, facing cuts that — at least on the surface — are less severe than those to their four-year counterparts.

In New York, for instance, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislative leaders unveiled a budget compromise Sunday that includes significant cuts to public higher education — but not the 10 percent across-the-board cut that Cuomo had originally proposed. The budget deal restores $18.2 million to community colleges in the City and State University of New York systems, but no money to their four-year institutions. (This article has been updated from a prior version to correct an error.)

In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett unveiled a budget proposal this month that would trim state support for its 14 community colleges by 1 percent, from $214 million to $212 million. By contrast, Corbett’s proposal would slash funding for the 14-university State System of Higher Education and the four “state-related institutions” (Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University) by about 50 percent, from nearly $1.1 billion to $554 million.

In other states where community colleges are facing more severe cuts than are four-year institutions. In Arizona, for example, Governor Jan Brewer wants to cut community college funding by about 50 percent, while she is eyeing cuts of 20 percent for the state's universities. The governor argues that community colleges can look to local tax dollars and tuition increases to make up for the loss. And in Texas, legislators irked some community college officials by introducing an initial budget plan that would have shuttered four two-year institutions.

Community college officials whose institutions are facing relatively favorable cuts, in states like New York and Pennsylvania, won't go so far as to praise (or even fully acknowledge) the differences in their sector's treatment. After all, they say, a cut is still a cut. They argue, too, their institutions have been woefully underfunded for decades, making any currently proposed minor budget concession to their sector cold comfort.

From a national perspective, observers of higher education caution against reading too much into a handful of appropriations decisions in today’s rough economic climate. Some say that the comparatively small cuts to community colleges do not signal a shift in policy toward favoring open-access institutions, but rather amount to little more than “triage” funding for higher education in many states.

Kevin E. Drumm, president of Broome Community College, in New York, said he was “stunned” when he saw Cuomo’s original budget proposal, noting that it would have forced his institution and many other two-years in the state to raise their tuition up to 15 percent and slice faculty positions to make up for the loss. He added that the recent budget compromise, which would shrink the cut for community colleges to 6 percent from 10 percent, was reached only after the governor and legislators understood what he calls the “access issue.”

“New York community colleges are getting expensive,” Drumm said. “We’re in the top 10 to 15 percent nationally for tuitions, whereas our universities are in the bottom quartile…. What was shocking to the governor and legislators was how much we would have to raise tuition to balance our budgets. That was really the bottom line that helped convince the governor that we needed relief from his original budget figure. We would have been gasping to stay afloat with a 10 percent cut. Now, with a 6 percent cut, it puts our nose just above water. But we can’t take another wave.”

Drumm said he was pleased to see the relative costliness of the state’s community colleges and inexpensiveness of the state’s four-year institutions become part of the “political dialogue” in this year’s budget process. He said he hopes that this bodes well for community colleges in the future, even if tuition at four-year institutions may have to go up.

Debbie L. Sydow, president of Onondaga Community College, in New York, noted that in her 11 years as a president in New York, the governor’s initial budget proposal has consistently included deep cuts for community colleges, with later versions vetted by legislators restoring funds for them.

“Community colleges have been underfunded from the beginning,” Sydow said. “It’s in the normal course of business for us to operate efficiently…. I just think [the legislature] is finally starting to understand that community colleges are very nimble in preparing people for jobs and understand what we offer in terms of economic development.”

Donald E. Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, said he suspects this realization — that community colleges are seen as “tightly coupled with job creation” — partially explains Corbett’s relative sparing of community colleges in determining budget cuts in Pennsylvania. Still, he noted that, as the budget is still being debated by the legislature, some of the larger cuts directed at the state’s four-year institutions could be scaled back. One thing is certain, he said: “The overall impact is that public higher education is going to be more expensive." Even community colleges, Heller said, will not be immune to tuition increases.

Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said the 1 percent cut to the sector in Corbett’s budget is a bit misleading as a figure, since federal stimulus funds that were used in the previous operating budgets will no longer be available either. The loss for community colleges, she added, is actually closer to 10 percent when stimulus dollars are accounted for. She and a number of community college presidents lobbied the state appropriations committee Wednesday to restore some of the funds that would be cut in Corbett’s proposed budget for their sector — even as representatives from the state’s four-year institutions are asking the same.

“Honestly, we don’t feel that the cuts in education, across the board [no matter the sector], are a good thing,” Bosak said. “It’s just not the right time, when you’re looking at trying to rebuild the economy…. Community colleges in this state have been woefully underfunded, so I will not say [our smaller cut] is some gift. Still, we are appreciative we didn’t take a dramatic cut.”

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability and of the National Association of System Heads, said that some of what is happening in these states is a continuation of recent revenue and spending practices. For instance, she noted that in recessions states are more inclined to let the four-year institutions increase tuitions to make up for cuts, thereby protecting the subsidies of community colleges. Still, she added that this model does create long-term inequities between the various sectors within a state’s higher education system, with less-selective four-year public colleges stuck in the middle.

“The problem, historically, has been that the tuition increases (a) aren’t actually enough to make up for the losses of state funds — so students pay more while the institution actually has to spend less — and (b) the research universities have the authority to raise tuitions faster than the comprehensive/regional institutions,” Wellman wrote in an e-mail. “So at the end of the day, the institutions whose mission is to provide affordable access to [baccalaureate] education, not research or job training, actually end up losers relative to funding advantages for the research institutions on one end — through greater tuition deregulation — and the [community colleges] on the other — through protection of subsidies.”

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the ability of states to differentiate funding for different types of institutions — even in the limited way states like New York and Pennsylvania are attempting — is a “new, promising wrinkle.”

“The advice we’ve been giving policy makers is not to favor one kind of institution, but that the educational safety net has to be preserved,” Callan said. “The sector that’s least able to look to tuition to make up for losses has to be a priority…. In the face of draconian budget cuts, you have to limit the damage and make cuts in a way that will have the least impact on college success.”

Still, as if state officials needed any reminder, Callan cautioned, “It’s very difficult to get states to set priorities, especially in difficult budget scenarios.” Only time will tell, he added, if some of the nuances shown in state appropriation discussions today will have an impact on future funding for community colleges and higher education more broadly.


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