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Some community colleges have survived this budget season with their state funding intact, despite deficits and worries about potential cuts.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Balefire9/iStock/Getty Images

Despite doom-and-gloom news about lean state budgets and dwindling federal pandemic-relief funds, some community colleges have successfully staved off cuts this budget cycle, to the great relief of campus leaders and advocates. They say these spells of good fortune show growing support for their institutions among state lawmakers.

New Jersey state legislators reversed course late last month on a proposed 12 percent cut to the state’s 18 community colleges. The earlier version of the budget put $20 million at risk, a sum added by the state Legislature last year to offset rising employee health-care costs at the colleges. But the final version of the budget, recently signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy, kept funding level with last year.

Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said the good news wasn’t made public until a day before the budget was signed, as the governor and state lawmakers were negotiating until the 11th hour.

But he remained hopeful throughout the negotiations that the college leaders’ fight against the cut would pay off, given the outpouring of encouragement they received from local employers and lawmakers on both side of the aisle. He believes statewide and national conversations about higher ed affordability and efforts by colleges to bolster workforce education have won them more admiration and support over the last decade.

The proposed funding cut “would have had really deep and troubling impacts on the colleges in the short term and the long term,” Fichtner said, noting that some institutions might have had to reduce student services or cut academic programs. “So I think all of our colleges are breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to make some very, very difficult decisions.”

California community colleges also came out of this budget cycle unscathed, despite a whopping $46.8 billion state deficit. California governor Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature came to an agreement on the final budget in late June, which included $16 billion in total spending cuts.

But the final budget protects “priorities that matter deeply to Californians”—including education, Newsom said in a press release. “This is a responsible budget that prepares for the future while investing in foundational programs that benefit millions of Californians every day.”

The final budget made no core funding cuts to community colleges, a feat partly enabled by some creative accounting—including borrowing from the state General Fund and delaying some payments, EdSource reported. The University of California and California State University systems weren’t so lucky; while both will receive a 5 percent funding increase as part of multiyear compact agreements, they are also subject to one-time cuts this fiscal year of $125 million and $75 million, respectively.

Sonya Christian, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, wrote in an email that initially she was “absolutely” worried about cuts and how they could affect the state’s 116-campus system, especially at a time of enrollment recovery. She noted that student head count is back up to roughly two million after a steep pandemic decline to about 1.8 million. That recovery has included enrollment increases among Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students age 35 and older.

“Significant budget cuts for 2024–25 would have detrimentally impacted our colleges and students,” she wrote. “We are hugely grateful to the Governor and to the senate and assembly leaders for their vote of confidence in the California Community Colleges.”

David O’Brien, the system’s vice chancellor for government relations, noted that community colleges had other “significant wins” this budget cycle as well, including a one-time allocation of $60 million from the Strong Workforce Program to expand nursing education and $6 million in one-time funding to scale up credit for prior learning efforts across the system.

Some of this year’s budget successes “are relatively minor in terms of the dollar amount but with the potential to have major future impact depending on how they work out,” O’Brien said.

Community colleges in the City University of New York system also enjoyed a $15 million windfall from New York City’s final budget for fiscal year 2025. The system as a whole received $77.6 million over an earlier proposal by Mayor Eric Adams, a welcome change after a cumulative $95 million cut since January 2022, The City reported. The system’s seven community colleges bore most of the burden of those cuts, according to an April report by the city comptroller, Brad Lander. (The move came after the state’s FY 2025 budget increased funding for community colleges in both the State University of New York and CUNY systems, by $8 million and $5.3 million, respectively.)

CUNY chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez thanked the mayor and city council for a budget that “recognizes the essential role that public higher education plays in New York City.”

He said in a July statement that the funding boost for community colleges would “help offset tuition loss from enrollment declines and help cover a range of operational needs that have a direct impact on our students.” Enrollment in CUNY’s community colleges fell from 91,715 in fall 2019 to 67,584 in fall 2023, a 26 percent decrease, according to the comptroller’s report.

A Promising Trend

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said it’s hard to find conclusive, national data about state funding decisions regarding community colleges, but he’s heard repeatedly from community college advocates that state lawmakers have been more receptive to them in recent budget cycles.

“There have been a number of instances where colleges have secured good increases from their legislatures, in some cases where four-year institutions have not,” he said. “What comes through loudly and clearly is that most advocates do feel, for community colleges, that their mission, their goals … their role in the economy and in promoting economic mobility is something that is more and more broadly understood by legislators.”

Baime added that states have recently shown community colleges new support in other ways as well. Notably, Texas adopted a new performance-based funding formula for community colleges last year, which is expected to funnel $2.2 billion in state funds to the institutions over two years, compared to $1.8 billion under the old formula. Many states have also adopted tuition-free community college programs, or promise programs, which Baime views as another financial “recognition” of the vital role of community colleges.

He added that as Americans increasingly question the value of higher education—particularly as a path to high-paying jobs—community colleges have earned renewed respect from state policymakers for their focus on economic mobility and workforce-oriented programs.

Campus leaders are seeing that admiration “translated into greater financial support,” he said.

Hopes for the Future

While level or increased funding is good news, this year’s budget cycle hasn’t entirely fulfilled community college leaders’ hopes.

Fichtner, of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, pointed out that his state’s community colleges have been chronically underfunded. The council estimates that New Jersey ranks 46th among the 47 states that have community colleges in terms of state support per full-time student.

While he’s happy to see funding kept level, “there needs to be increased investment in community colleges going forward,” Fichtner said.

California community colleges also experienced some disappointments this budget season. All state agencies need to cut nearly 8 percent in administrative costs under the new budget, and the community college system is no exception. The budget also doesn’t put money toward expanding access to and simplifying the Cal Grant state financial aid program, which was a priority for system leaders. O’Brien said they also hope for future funding to bring all 73 of the state’s community college districts onto a common technology platform.

Even so, O’Brien is grateful to the governor and California state Legislature for “keeping community colleges whole,” he said, and recognizing that their funding directly affects how well institutions can serve students, including low-income and first-generation students, English language learners, and parenting students.

At the same time, “we went into this budget, and we will come out of this, still the lowest-funded system of public education in California on a per-student basis,” he added. “It is significant that we didn’t see any major cuts. It’s also significant that we continue to be inequitably funded over all and serve the students with the greatest needs.”

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