As I discussed in my last blog (“The Community College Contribution”), the community college system plays a number of critical roles in the U.S. higher-education system, not to speak of the roles these colleges play in their communities and the broader U.S. society. The Great Recession has greatly expanded these roles and has prompted phenomenal growth in the number of applications to, and enrollment in these colleges.
The problem is that the rapidly expanding role of the system, combined with the need to accommodate growing numbers of students, has exposed a number of serious systemic cracks. Piling on on the impact and the financial cuts attributable to the recession has now brought the entire system to the brink of crisis.
The community college system is already becoming a victim of its own success. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of students enrolled in the community college system exploded by 225%, far outpacing growth at four-year universities, whose enrollments grew 1.65 times. But while the number of students surged, the number of community colleges expanded by only about 16% (to a total of 1,045), far more slowly than the number of four-year schools and private, for-profit two-year schools (often called junior colleges). The results, most community colleges are terribly overcrowded.
Operating budgets are also growing more slowly. Public community colleges, for example, count on tuitions for only about 20% of total funding and sources including gifts and contracts with local businesses roughly another 10%. Governments account for the vast majority, with states contributing about 40%, localities about 20% and federal another 10%. The problem is that state and local government funding has been growing at less than the rate of inflation and has fallen way behind the growth in the number of students graduating from high schools and the percentage of high school graduates who are going to college.
Community colleges, meanwhile, capture far less than their fair share of federal government funding. While these schools enroll about 35% of all post-secondary students, they capture only about 20% of total federal tertiary education funding including 9% of federal campus-based aid, 14% of academic competitiveness grants and 30% in Pell Grants.
Some of this shortfall, however, is at least attributable to the colleges themselves. Consider Pell grants. Publicly-funded community colleges typically address the same market and recruit from the same applicant pool as private, for-profit two-year schools. But while these for-profit colleges (including those owned by Apollo Group, Career Education Corporation and ITT Technical Institute) enroll only 7.7% of total post-secondary students, they have become much more effective at qualifying for federal education aid— capturing almost 25% of all federal aid, with some counting on this aid for 90% of their total revenues.
These for-profit colleges have been particularly effective in winning Pell Grants, capturing more than $10 billion—more than all community colleges combined. Why? Numerous federal investigators and journalists have been asking the same questions. Suppositions include the ability of these high-priced, typically profitable schools to afford and incent recruiters to sign large numbers of students and train financial aid officers to help students qualify for federal grants and loans. But whatever the reasons, the Department of Education has just issued new rules that will dramatically cut aid to those schools whose graduates do not earn enough to repay their loans.
Limited funding, however, is only part of the explanation for community colleges’ traditionally poor financial position. While community colleges certainly get less funding than other types of higher-education institutions, they also bear disproportionately higher costs. For example, they are forced to spend an estimated $2 billion per year to teach remedial skills (especially in math, English and writing) that were not learned in high school. This remediation burden falls particularly heavily on community colleges. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about one-third of all the nation’s first-year college students require at least one remedial course—a figure that rises to 42% for two-year schools. Some states want them to go even further, taking over all GED education plus the remedial education traditionally offered by public four-year schools.
The results: Community colleges are being forced to pack more students into each class, reduce time in expensive facilities such as labs and cut back on “frills”, such as education and career counselors (see below). This, combined with their state-mandated open admission policies, results in more dropouts than graduates.
True, all American colleges and universities (except for the most competitive), have a dropout problem. An OECD study, for example, shows that while the U.S. sends the highest percentage of high school graduates to college of all member countries, it has the second lowest (next to Italy) completion rate. Publicly-funded community colleges perform worse than any other type of school. A 2009 St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank study, for example, found that only 35% of community college students complete one semester of study and that fewer than 50% end up completing any type of degree. Those who do go on to four-year schools are 36% less likely to complete their degree than are those students who started at a four-year college.
The worst part—this was all before the Great Recession.
Burden of the Recession
While the situation was bad before, it is much worse now. All state college systems face huge budget cuts, but California has become ground zero. Although all forms of public education are being decimated in California, public universities face the brunt of the cuts. The University of California and the California State University systems now face budget shortfalls totaling $940 million. They are being forced to slash salaries, freeze hiring and limit purchases to essential items. Worse still, tuition rates are soaring (up 32%), 200,000 students will lose Cal Grant tuition assistance (before the entire program is eliminated in 2011), and state universities are being forced to stop accepting applications for the 2010 spring term and cut total system-wide enrollment by 40,000 students over the next year. California community colleges alone had to turn away 140,000 prospective students this year.
The situation is even worse for the state’s 100+ public community colleges. Record percentage of high-school graduates, facing bleak employment prospects, have decided to attend college. Meanwhile, laid off employees, fearing that “their jobs are not coming back”, are looking to community colleges to help prepare for new careers. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of students who are being turned away from the state university systems. As if this weren’t bad enough, the state is cutting $630 million in funding for community colleges—about 9% of system’s total budget.
Although all California community colleges are in similar straits, City College of San Francisco has become something of a poster child for the crisis. The school which lost $13.6 million in state financing this academic year, has slashed spending and is trying to raise money in any way it can. It has held garage sales and flea markets, installed donation boxes in bookstores and cafeterias. It is now soliciting contributions from individuals—promising to name a class for any individual or company that pledges $6,000.
This creativity, however, has not been enough to stave off reality. It was forced to cancel its summer session and cut more than 900 classes over the year. Those students who can afford higher tuitions and lower subsidies must now struggle to get the courses required to meet major requirements, graduate or transfer to a university. One thousand six hundred and fifty-five of those students who tried to register in fall 2009 did not get into any classes at all, up from 635 in fall 2005. And when they try to ask a counselor for help, they learn that more than 10,000 counseling hours have been cut.
As explained by Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford and past president of the California State Board of Education, “The longer students cannot take the classes they want or need, the less likely it is that they will complete the program they want. They run out of money. They run out of time. They just give up at some point.”
How bad is this situation? Search Google for the term “community college crisis” and the first five articles focus on California. But, that’s California. What about the rest of the country. First, in terms of community colleges, one can almost say that California IS the country. More than one-quarter of all U.S. community college students are in California.
Facetiousness aside, the California case may be the highest profile and the most extreme. It is, however, far from unique. Virtually all states are facing huge financial shortfalls and most are making particularly large cuts in public education—especially higher education. And many experts expect the state fiscal crisis to worsen in 2011. Moreover, the current fiscal crisis only served to make a dreadful situation even worse. As discussed , the nation’s community college problems run much deeper than budgets.
Although the U.S. consistently dominates the ranks of the world’s best universities, its overall higher education accomplishments are far less impressive. For example, according to the OECD, although the U.S. already spends more than twice the share of GDP on higher education than does the European Union, it is typically in the middle of the pack (or lower) in areas such as International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) qualifications, science and math education and graduation rates.
So, what’s the answer? The solutions are even more complex than the problem. Although nobody knows all the answers, I will discuss some of the proposed solutions—and the ways of paying for them—in my next blog.