Undergraduate News

Community Colleges Get Squeezed


These should be good times for Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. While enrollment at a number of other colleges is rising marginally, Monroe's enrollment rose a school-record 3.6% this year, to 18,210 students. But given the sour state of the economy, this blessing is fast becoming a curse.

On Dec. 16, New York Governor David Patterson recommended cutting the state's contributions to higher education, including an 11.2% reduction in state funding to Monroe, as part of his recently proposed budget. Juggling record growth and steep cuts in state resources is no easy task for Monroe's interim president, Larry W. Tyree, who took the office in September. "We know we have a mission to serve students who might not have alternatives other than Monroe Community College," he says. "How are we going to do it in light of these revenue shortfalls? I don't have a crystal ball to answer that."

Tyree's problem is not unique. The rapid growth in enrollment in community colleges nationwide will only be exacerbated by the current economic crisis, which is pushing hordes of new students to community colleges. With many states cutting back on funding, schools like Monroe are struggling to keep up.

Stretched to the Limit

A recent study by the Delta Cost Project, a group that monitors income and spending habits at colleges and universities, indicates that enrollment at community colleges is on the rise while their revenues, mainly from state governments, are dwindling. Despite a 6.1% growth in enrollment for the period 2002 to 2006 at community colleges, spending per student fell 5.9%. During the same period, public universities were able to increase spending per student by 2.9%. "These schools are really stretched to the limit," says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project.

Community colleges are not only being fed by a new wave of high school graduates, more eager than those of their parents' generation to earn a degree, but by transfers from universities where rising tuition, coupled with a recession that is crippling many parents' ability to pay, is pushing many to find more affordable alternatives. Tyree says the state of the economy is largely, if not entirely, responsible for the 15.1% increase in transfer students Monroe saw in the fall of 2008.

This influx of new students makes the cuts in state spending on community colleges all the more harmful. Making matters worse is the general inability of community colleges to attract the endowments or other private funding that most major public and private colleges and universities can fall back on during hard times.

Tyree describes private revenues at Monroe as "minuscule," and Wellman notes that this is a common trait among community colleges. According to the Delta Cost Project study, as of 2006, private funding accounted for $268 of revenue per student in community colleges, whereas in public research universities it accounted for $2,208 per student and private research universities drew $37,755 in revenue per student. "There's almost no private money in community colleges," says Wellman. "The institutions themselves and state governments are both going to have to step up."

Tuition Hikes Coming

Because of the lack of significant funding from private donors, community colleges tend to lean heavily on tuition fees and state government subsidies. Tuition hikes can't be pushed too far because high fees can alienate the low-income students that community colleges work so hard to attract. Tyree does concede that tuition increases are unavoidable, and that Monroe's current $2,900 tuition will likely jump 10% in the fall of 2009. "One of the hallmarks of community colleges is to maintain accessibility," he says. "Every time we think about increasing tuition fees, we ask ourselves, are we pricing some of our potential students out of our market?"

Budget cuts would help alleviate some of the financial tension, but they come at a price. Administrators at large and small schools alike are wary of cutting any programs or amenities that serve their students. All feel obligated to maintain their faculty and key educational programs, but on-campus facilities and student services will likely suffer.

Tyree notes that to combat the economic woes, Monroe has left 18 staff positions unfilled, and the school's technology budget has been cut in half, but he is adamant about not cutting faculty. Though with an impeding state budget cut coupled with pressure to keep tuition low, he and other community college administrators like him may face tough choices. "Painful decisions are going to have to be made," says Robert H. Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education. "They're going to have to cut back."

Burnsed is an editorial assistant for BusinessWeek based in Atlanta.


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