Completion Conundrum

Citing severe state budget woes, community college leaders are pessimistic about the feasibility of the push to graduate more students, survey finds.

December 8, 2011

The state funding outlook for community colleges is too bleak for the completion agenda to succeed, according to a national survey of statewide leaders of two-year institutions.

For example, respondents from just four states said a “long-term plan exists to finance the operating budgets needed to increase the number of adults with college degrees and certificates.” Facilities budgets are even worse, with only three respondents calling state capital funding adequate.

Optimism is hard to spot in the survey results released Wednesday by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center. The research is part of the center’s annual survey of state community college directors, who manage and coordinate two-year colleges in their states.

Directors from all 50 states responded to this year’s survey, which was conducted over the summer, including two representatives from Georgia, which has separate community and technical college systems. No response was included for the District of Columbia, which has only one, relatively new community college.

Community colleges will have to do much of the heavy lifting to achieve the ambitious college degree attainment goals that President Obama and powerful foundations are pushing. Selective private colleges and state flagship universities don’t have room for much enrollment growth. So an increase in graduates will likely require more students starting at community colleges and transferring to regional public universities and flagships, according to the report.

The sector is also the first choice for seekers of associate degrees and certificates, with for-profit institutions playing a growing role in this student market, at least until recently.

“Community colleges are the portal of entry into higher education for millions of academically talented minority, low income, first-generation and adult students,” the report said. These student populations are growing relative to those of wealthier, more prepared students, but community colleges lack the money to handle enrollment increases, according to the survey.

State budget woes make advancing the completion agenda at community colleges an “almost impossible task,” said Janice N. Friedel, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University and one of the report’s co-authors.

The double whammy of tight finances and increased demand has already been felt by many community colleges.

Survey respondents from 16 states agreed with the statement that community colleges have “limited the number of class sections resulting in a de facto enrollment cap at all or some institutions in my state.” Among that group, seven community college leaders strongly agreed, including respondents from California -- which turned away 140,000 community college students last year -- Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.

In addition, 39 respondents said state funding systems do not offer adequate incentives to increase transfer rates from community colleges to four-year institutions. However, 35 states are considering performance-based funding models, or already have them in place, according to the report.

“Budget cuts have resulted in some fundamental access issues in a number of states,” said Mark M. D’Amico, a report co-author and an assistant professor of leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

As capacity strains grow, the report said facilities funding will become an even more urgent need. And this is a problem that disproportionately affects states with growing Hispanic populations. The 24 states where community colleges are currently struggling to meet enrollment demand saw significant Hispanic population growth over the last decade -- a gain of at least 50 percent in 15 states.

Hispanic Population Growth and Long-Term Plans for Financing in Large States
  Increase in Hispanics,        2000 to 2010 To increase the number of adults with college degrees and certificates, a long-term plan exists in my state to finance ...
State Number % Operating budgets Capital budgets
California  3,047,163 28 Disagree Disagree
Florida  1,541,091 57 Disagree Disagree
Georgia-TCS 418,462 96 Neutral/Don't Know Neutral/DK
Georgia-UGS Disagree Disagree
Illinois  497,316 33 Disagree Disagree
New York  549,339 19 Disagree Disagree
North Carolina  421,157 111 Neutral/Don't Know Strongly Disagree
Ohio  137,551 63 Neutral/Don't Know Neutral/DK
Pennsylvania  325,572 86 Disagree Disagree
Texas  2,791,255 42 Disagree Disagree
Source: University of Alabama Education Policy Center

“Facilities have not received enough attention on the part of policy makers,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, the center’s director and a report co-author.

Many of the high demand degree and certificate programs offered by community colleges are technical and require laboratories and other substantial, expensive facilities, such as health care simulations or robotics labs. And online offerings won’t be able to fill the gaps, Friedel said.

Over all, the survey results give a sobering view of the challenge facing community colleges and the increasingly nonwhite students who attend them. The clear message from its respondents was that for the completion agenda to work, states will need to pay for it.


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