As Enrollments Soar and State Aid Vanishes, Community Colleges Reconsider Their Role

“This takes us I think to the lowest funding level in history, if you look on a per-student basis.”

by / April 12, 2011
Frank Phillips College, in Borger, Texas, was one of four community colleges that would have lost all state funding under a budget plan put forward by the state House of Representatives.

Jud Hicks got the e-mail late one evening in January. The following day, it said, the Texas House of Representatives would release a budget proposal cutting off all state money to four community colleges. One of those was Frank Phillips College, a small school in the Panhandle town of Borger, where Hicks has been the president since early this year.

“We had no idea,” he recalls. “You had students saying, what do I do? I guess my grades won’t transfer.”

News reports suggested that without state funding, the four community colleges would have no choice but to close. In Borger, a windy plains town of 13,000 people, where oil refineries and chemical plants are the main employers, that would be a devastating outcome. But the impact would be felt well beyond Borger. If Frank Phillips College were to close, the residents of a 9,300 square-mile area -- roughly the size of New Hampshire -- would be left without a single college or university.

That scenario no longer seems likely. The House modified its plan last month, reinstating funding for the four schools. While the 1,300 students at Frank Phillips were relieved, the turnaround came with a price: Now, all community colleges are slated to receive a budget cut of roughly 20 percent. “This takes us I think to the lowest funding level in history, if you look on a per-student basis,” says Rey Garcia, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Garcia doubts that state money will ever come back.

Texas community colleges aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Schools across the country are losing state funding, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Department of Education data (see graphic). In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the state share of community college funding fell by one percentage point to 26.8 percent, the lowest level in at least five years. That drop doesn’t take into account more severe cuts states are debating now as states slog through the fourth year of a fiscal crisis -- this time without federal stimulus funding.

Yet as state aid for community colleges shrinks, enrollments are skyrocketing. The schools saw a 20 percent increase in the number of students between 2004 and 2009, according to federal statistics. With unemployment rates still stubbornly high, many laid-off workers now look to community colleges for the training and education they need to find a job. And steep tuition hikes at four-year schools have many high school graduates turning to community colleges as a more affordable alternative.

The result of these twin forces is a situation bordering on a crisis on some campuses. Aside from Texas, the situation is most severe in Arizona and California -- those three states combined enroll one of every three for-credit community college students. All are making deep budget cuts that seem destined to fundamentally change the nature of what community colleges do, how many students they serve and what they charge for tuition.

In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer signed a budget last week that slashes state funding for community colleges in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. Today, the state of Arizona provides 8 percent of the schools’ funding. Brewer’s plan would cut that to 1 percent. College administrators expect the state will completely stop funding the school in the next few years. “What relationship will our community colleges have with the state of Arizona when we're in essence down to one percent or zero percent funding?” asks Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges.

In California, the situation may be even more dire. The demand for community college courses simply outpaces California’s ability to fund them. Last year, an estimated 150,000 students were turned away from community colleges because they could not find a spot in oversubscribed courses. Now, the collapse of the revenue side of Governor Jerry Brown’s budget plan is likely to result in budget cuts that will allow even fewer classes to be offered. As many as 400,000 students may be turned away next year. As Jack Scott, chancellor of California’s community colleges, puts it, “We are rationing our education.”

All this has the leaders of community colleges reassessing their mission. At Frank Phillips College, the soul searching runs deeper than that. What Hicks and all the civic and business leaders of Borger have been confronted with this spring is the ultimate question: In this environment, can a community college survive?

“We have 58,000 people in our nine-county service area and we have no other institution of higher education anywhere in there,” Hicks says. “I’ll call it a moral obligation to educate citizens in our service area.”

The Darlings of Higher Education

Enrollment in community colleges started taking off in the 1960’s, as the first wave of baby boomers graduated from high school. Two factors drove their popularity: First, community colleges in many states must maintain an open-door policy, accepting every high-school graduate who walks through the door. Second, tuition is lower than in four-year public universities. California didn’t charge tuition at all at community colleges until 1984.

Over the years, as enrollment continued to climb and new colleges opened, state and federal policymakers lavished praise on community colleges as a cheap and effective way to propel new generations into the middle class. State legislatures sent annual appropriations to the schools to help fund them.

Recently, Washington has been talking up community colleges as the antidote to the country’s economic doldrums. In 2009, President Obama visited a community college in Michigan to announce a plan to pump $12 billion into community colleges. Last month, Vice President Joe Biden urged governors to increase community college graduation rates. In February, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis visited Philadelphia to speak about the importance of two-year degrees.

With the exception of the stimulus funding, the federal commitment hasn’t amounted to much. Obama’s $12 billion pledge was later whittled down to $2 billion in negotiations with Congress. More recently, the administration has rolled out a modest $122 million grant program for community colleges. Meanwhile, budget-cutters in Washington have talked about cutting Pell Grants, which many community college students rely on to help defray their tuition costs.

“The rhetoric has been nothing but positive,” says John Roueche, an expert on community colleges at the University of Texas. “Community colleges are the darlings in everybody's mind. But boy, talk is cheap.”

In many states, the colleges generally rely on three major sources of revenue: state funding, tuition and local property tax receipts. Local governments are having a hard time keeping up their commitments, as the housing downturn depresses property tax revenues. And state funding — calculated as a share of the overall cost to run the schools — generally has been on a downward trend for more than two decades. That trend accelerated as the states’ budget crisis worsened over the past few years. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 15 states cut funding to higher education between fiscal years 2008 and 2009 and 26 did between 2009 and 2010.

Now, states are slashing what’s left of their support. The cuts in Arizona, California and Texas may be the most severe, Roueche says, but they “are harbingers for what’s ahead for all of us.”

Borger Without a College

The huge population boom that Texas is experiencing is nowhere to be found in Borger. Like much of the Texas Panhandle, Borger’s population has eroded by about 8 percent since 2000. Vacant houses and storefronts dot many streets. Frank Phillips College is not seeing the sort of enrollment jump that so many community colleges are around the country. That’s one reason why the state House initially included the school on its list of institutions to defund.

Yet Frank Phillips College plays an important role in the town. For many students, it begins before they even graduate from high school. Right now, 89 students from Borger High School take courses at the community college, and receive college credit for it. Many of those students will go on to Frank Phillips to begin their college careers before moving on to four-year schools. “Both of my kids went to Frank Phillips College,” says Borger City Manager Eddie Edwards. “It’s been a staple of our community for years and years and years.”

One of the most popular programs is welding, which helps prepare students for work at the oil refineries and chemical plants that surround the town. Welding jobs can pay more than $60,000 a year, according to college officials. If the school were not there, students and employers would have to drive to Pampa (40 minutes away) or Amarillo (an hour) for welding classes. Aaron Robinson is a student in the welding program. Asked what he would do without Frank Phillips College, he replies, “Flipping burgers or cutting up scrap metal.”

Eddie Howard, employment manager for Austin Industrial, Inc., which as a maintenance contract with a large refinery in Borger says that he’s hired about 17 Frank Phillips students since the start of the year.

“They’re well-trained coming out of there,” he says, adding that it can be hard to find qualified workers in sparsely populated area. “It’s not like a Houston, Texas, where there’s, say, 10,000 qualified craftsmen available. In Borger, the numbers aren’t really there.”

Borger residents have rallied around their college before. In 1983, local donations helped the college build a community center on campus with meeting rooms, a gym, a heated pool, a racquetball court and dance studios. The center is packed with locals who work out on their lunch breaks. The high school holds its prom in the college library and many of the school’s 110 employees live in town. In 2005, Frank Phillips opened a satellite campus in Perryton funded by economic development grants and local donations. The Perryton campus was built entirely without bonds.

When the news broke that the college might lose its state funding, Hicks heard from people in town offering support. The school’s staff fiercely denied that state cuts would force the school to close, invoking the pioneer spirit that is still evident on the High Plains.

“Whether those people in Austin believe it needs to go or not doesn’t matter,” says Deborah Summers, an anthropology professor at the school. “We know we’re important, and we know we’re going to be here. There are very strong numbers of older ranch women like myself here that don’t like being told what to do.”

Other observers, however, were less optimistic. Frank Phillips College relies on state appropriations for about one-quarter of its revenues, roughly $2.6 million. Filling a gap of that size with private dollars would be a challenge. What’s more, the school cannot legally raise its property tax rate.

The new House budget would keep Frank Phillips and the other three community colleges open, but draw deeper cuts from the entire community college system. Once lawmakers approve a budget, Hicks will have to find a way to incorporate the cuts.

Help From the Private Sector

Can community colleges survive in this funding environment? Some schools have turned to the private sector. Instead of waiting for state governments to fund new programs in growing fields, the schools are appealing directly to employers to help sustain the courses that provide them with workers.

In Maryland, Anne Arundel Community College recently launched a cyber-security program with financial assistance from private companies that do contract work with the federal government. That program has grown from 37 students in 2005 to 242 this year.

“If we rely only on government funding, as we have been able to do for most of our history, we would not be able to be responsive to the needs of our workforce in the ways that we are,” says Anne Arundel Community College President Martha Smith.

Arizona may be headed in the same direction. Glasper, the Maricopa chancellor, says he hopes that a recently-approved measure to spur business investment through tax cuts will make it possible for community colleges to contract with businesses to train new workers. “We would hope that for our services, the companies would be paying for some form of tuition,” he says. “We’re in essence moving almost to a privatization model.”

Whether or not that happens, it seems clear that the fundamental bargain behind community colleges is changing. In California, where community college was once an easily-accessible step towards a college degree, some students have become demoralized by enrollment caps and waiting lists. Meghan O’Donnell, a second-year student at Folsom Lake Community College near Sacramento, says she sees students sitting on the floor in many of her classes. It takes longer for many of her classmates to graduate because there’s not enough room in the required courses.

“We’re willing to work, we’re willing to stay a year longer but there’s only so much we can take,” says O’Donnell, who serves on a statewide student board. “It’s at a point where we’re starting to become hopeless.”

Scott, the California chancellor, sympathizes with the students. But the system he manages can’t keep enrolling wave upon wave of new students while absorbing more and more budget cuts. “American community colleges are based on core values that are in conflict now,” Scott says. “You cannot maintain quality and keep the doors of these colleges open to everybody if you’re in a drastically declining financial environment.”

Reprinted courtest of, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.

David Harrison
David Harrison is a staff writer.