Community colleges face stiff competition for limited resources

'There's no easy way out,' says one college president

Competition for scant funds is putting pressure on community colleges in many states, Paul Fain reports for Inside Higher Ed

The Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama released a survey this month that found higher education was losing steam as a policy priority in many state legislatures. Compounding the issue is an incoming wave of Republican governors, many of whom have promised to cut taxes. That places community colleges in direct competition with other priorities—such as health care and pensions—for declining resources.

Declining state funding is particularly problematic for community colleges because, unlike four-year institutions, they have a limited ability to make up shortfalls with fundraising. Furthermore, they cannot greatly increase tuition or recruit more out-of-state students to bring in additional revenues, points out Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center. Those actions could threaten their mission to provide broad access to local residents.

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In Maryland and Illinois, the state funding outlook is particularly dire. Maryland has a $600 million budget deficit next year. And as the result of pending tax changes, Illinois is expecting a $2 billion revenue shortfall. In Illinois, many community colleges already only receive 5% of their revenue from the state, with the rest coming from tuition and local governments. In meetings with the governor-elect, the head of the Illinois Board of Higher Education warned colleges to prepare for up to 30% in funding cuts next year.

Doing more with less

Declining budgets have not stopped some community colleges in Illinois from innovating. Since 2010, City Colleges of Chicago has nearly doubled completion rates for low-income students. That was a central goal of the system's "reinvention plan," proposed by Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. The completion rate was up to 13% in 2013 from 7% before she arrived in 2010.

Harper College, in Chicago's northwest suburbs, has focused on new academic programs. It has launched a program around stackable, industry-endorsed certificates in manufacturing. That program is the product of a broader Harper-led coalition of employers and two-year colleges around the state that focused on building curriculums tied to industry needs. 

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Efforts like these have helped community colleges draw the attention—and money—of the federal government. Kenneth Ender, Harper's president, says the certificates program had been largely funded by federal workforce investment funds.

However, those funds are now depleted. With that funding gone, he says the current budget situation is the worst he has ever seen. "There's no easy way out," he says (Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 12/3; City Colleges of Chicago Five-Year Plan report, accessed 12/5).

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