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The idea of increasing access to community colleges and opening the gateway to higher education has taken root among state officials and at the White House. States may not be prepared, or eager, to foot the bill on that idea, but they are open to the concept. 

That support has made what is happening in Arizona all the more disheartening to leaders of two-year colleges. 

Earlier this week, the Arizona Legislature and Governor Doug Ducey moved to pull all state funding for the Maricopa and Pima Community College Districts -- two of the largest in the state. Central Arizona College in Pinal County was saved by the Legislature and will continue to receive about $2 million in state support. The cuts are following an annual trend in Arizona in reducing money for higher education. But what is striking in Arizona is the drop from at least several million dollars to zero.

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"It would appear the State of Arizona is about to turn its back on community colleges,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “It’s hard to think of a more unfortunate development when we think about enhancing individual opportunity and social progress.”

The news comes at a time when states like Tennessee are focusing on offering tuition-free community college and ponying up more money to make that possible.

“At a time when nationally, community colleges are being asked to provide more workforce training and access for students to enter higher education and move into the middle class, it’s concerning,” said Walter Bumphus, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges. “I think the peers of these two colleges will feel today that we’re at a point in time where community colleges are being spotlighted, so this flies in the face of that.”

But Arizona is an anomaly and not a part of a trend, Bumphus insisted.

“I’m hearing states are investing more heavily in community college and not just because of the president’s proposal,” he said. “Fortunately there haven’t been any other colleges, to my knowledge, put in this predicament. So while many other states are struggling with funding and investments in higher education, I haven’t seen any other states put in this situation at this time.”

While the most dramatic cuts in Arizona were for community colleges, all funding for public colleges and universities in the state took a hit, Hartle said.

According to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona ranks first in the country in steep cuts to higher education budgets. The state cut spending during the Great Recession, and funding remains at pre-recession levels. Both the Maricopa and Pima districts saw the most dramatic state decreases from 2011 to 2012. Maricopa's state funding decreased by more than $38 million.  

Hartle said he can’t think of any other state that has taken such “draconian” measures.

“In the last couple of years, as we’ve come out of the Great Recession, many states have increased support for higher education to restore funding that was taken away when states were most affected by the economic downturn,” he said. Hartle cited Louisiana, where the governor and Legislature are addressing a budget shortfall and looking at higher education cuts, and said, "In other states we've seen significant proposed cuts to higher education, but proposing to take away all support for community colleges as Arizona has really sets the standard."

Down to Zero

Administrators at Maricopa, which serves about 265,000 students, have been dealing with state funding cuts for some time, as seen in the table below.

State Support for Arizona Community College Districts (in millions)

Fiscal Year Maricopa Pima
2009 $59.5 $19.6
2010 $51.1 $17
2011 $45.3 $15.6
2012 $6.9 $7.1
2013 $8.3 $7.3
2014 $7.9 $7.1
2015 $7.4 $6.5
2016      $0 0

Previous budget cuts have been the catalyst behind Maricopa Corporate College, which caters to companies looking to train employees. The companies, which include Amazon, Ford Motors, Marriott International, Nissan and the City of Phoenix, pay the colleges for training and courses.

That's the sort of "entrepreneurial" thinking that community college leaders must do as states cut their budgets, Bumphus said. 

“We definitely saw this [coming] and we’ve been planning on this day,” Maricopa Chancellor Rufus Glasper said.

But the state’s expenditure limitations on community colleges is one additional hurdle Maricopa faces as it looks to public-private partnerships to maintain and increase revenue.

Expenditure limitations place a cap on the amount of local funding colleges can raise, not including grants, federal aid, tuition or fees, in an effort to curb spending and avoid rapid growth. Glasper said the Legislature is listening to their calls to remove those limitations and he’s optimistic there will be progress once the budget process is finalized.

“We’re having conversations with legislative leaders now and we hope over the next year, if not this session, we will be successful,” he said.

“We will have to be successful being aggressive to expand public-private partnerships in order for us to replace a permanent revenue loss of $68 million from over the last 7 years,” Glasper said. “It will need to be a larger volume of corporate members and sustaining members to have predictable revenue.”

The Maricopa governing board decided in January not to raise taxes or tuition. The corporate college has also been open since July 2013, and while it will make money over time, it won’t immediately replace the lost state revenue, Glasper said.

Community colleges in particular will have to become innovative in order to raise revenue and avoid tuition hikes as some states cut back support. For most colleges that means raising money from alumni or increasing fund-raising and development activities.

But most community colleges don’t typically have established alumni networks, and those take time to develop, Hartle said, adding that Tom Hanks's New York Times op-ed praising Chabot College and free tuition at two-year institutions is a rarity.

Community colleges do change lives, but graduates aren’t as vocal about it, he said. “Whether their alumni will be as generous seems doubtful, and few have an emotional connection to community colleges as you would a four-year residential institution.” 

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