If the recession was bad for higher education, what comes after could be worse.
An annual survey of state directors of community colleges, released Wednesday, reveals that only 11 states have plans for how to balance their budgets once federal stimulus dollars are gone. Accordingly, officials in 21 states predict that the end of the stimulus funding will result in operating budget cuts for higher education this fiscal year.
Dire predictions like this are front and center in a new report  from the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama that is based on the responses of statewide community college officials from all 50 states. This is the first time in the life of the survey that it had a 100 percent response rate. (An explanatory presentation  with more charts and graphs breaking down the responses is also available.)
States with plan for end of federal stimulus funds: Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. (Remainder responded "no" or "not sure.")
Looking ahead to this fiscal year, enrollment increases are expected in 35 states, at an average of 9 percent. No state officials anticipated a decline. Twenty-two states, meanwhile, are projecting budget cuts, averaging about 2 percent. Rural community colleges will face the greatest fiscal strain, more than urban and suburban ones, according to respondents.
|State||Projected % Change in Community College Enrollments, 2010-11||Projected % Change in Community College Operating Budgets, 2010-11|
|Georgia (community colleges)||10||-10.1|
|Georgia (technical colleges)||10||1.3|
Officials from 37 states predict a budget gap this fiscal year for community colleges. The most popular strategies for closing these gaps were “across-the-board cuts,” “deferred maintenance” and “furloughs.”
Analyzing the uncertain fiscal situation portrayed in many states, the report’s authors — Steve Katsinas, director of the center, and Janice Friedel, educational leadership professor at California State University at Northridge — conclude that “the unprecedented national publicity for community colleges has clearly not produced more state funding.”
The survey reveals that community colleges reported more midyear budget cuts last fiscal year than did any other sector of public higher education; 28 states reported cuts averaging 7.6 percent. As a result, concerns remain about the ability of these institutions to maintain open access.
Only six officials reported that their states fully funded their community college formulas last fiscal year; this is the lowest level of any year on record, the report’s authors note. Also, tuition was raised for community colleges in 44 states at, on average, five times the rate of inflation. Generally, these tuition increases were not used to cover the anticipated end of federal stimulus funding. Instead, they were used to make up short-term losses.
“It seems to me that, in some states, the strategy is pray and hope for a state budget recovery,” Katsinas told reporters during a conference call Tuesday. “There’s a lot of uncertainty out there.”
Survey respondents were skeptical of the plausibility of the “completion agenda ” being pushed by the Obama administration, national education groups and influential philanthropic groups. A majority of officials agreed that “increasing graduation rates in most states is unlikely with budget cuts.” The report’s authors agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment as well.
“It’s not going to happen,” Friedel said bluntly during the conference call. “How can you increase graduation rates without more capacity?”
In addition to graduating students with credentials or successfully transferring them onward, the survey reveals, serving unemployed workers is another “unfunded mandate” for most community colleges. For example, last year 11 states offered free tuition for their unemployed workers to attend community colleges. This year, only four states did so.