The last recession, however, battered community colleges as states and local governments trimmed support while enrollment hit record levels.
Alabama Policy Study
The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center (Alabama) has been carefully keeping watch over community colleges and recently surveyed members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges (NCSDCC). The Alabama researchers noted that these schools provide developmental education for underprepared students and non graduates, as well as education for displaced older workers whose skills are out of date. The researchers continued to praise community colleges for reaching their targeted demographic while offering developmental education programs, dual enrollment and ease of transfer to four-year schools.
Funding is a huge challenge for community colleges, with state appropriations providing significant monies to help keep these schools afloat. The Alabama team also found that in half the states, at least 10 percent of the funding comes from local governments, such as county governments. For workforce training, community colleges also receive funding from the Workforce Investment Act, a 1998 law that replaced the previous Job Training Partnership Act and provided benefits including funding for higher education.
Steep Recessionary Cuts
The researchers found that budget cuts for higher education including community colleges eased in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Mid-year budget cuts were prevalent in 2008-2009, with 35 states making such changes during the heart of the recession. That number fell to just six states in the last fiscal year with those cuts averaging 4 percent for community colleges. Notably, the states are treating every sector of higher education the same in a bid to share the burden of such cuts across the entire spectrum.
The largest contributing factor to state budget cuts for three years beginning in 2009 was the recession. For the last two years, states have been concentrating on cutting Medicaid costs and before the recession it was K-12 education that got trimmed the most. The recession caused a decline in state revenue (taxes) and forced legislators to look for ways to trim budgets to balance the same as required.
Continued Financial Pressure
Looking ahead, the Alabama researchers noted that there will be intense competition for state funds even as recessionary pressures continue to fall. While both K-12 and Medicaid funding receive matching federal funding and are less likely to be cut, higher education does not receive a federal match and is an easier target for such cuts. Some 30 years ago, higher education comprised 17 to 20 percent of state budgets, falling to 9 to 11 percent in recent years.
Most state directors are anticipating an increase in community college funding for the coming year, with an average boost of 4 percent expected. However, directors in North Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri expect to see funding decrease for the upcoming fiscal year.
Tuition Increases, Rising Demand
Most community colleges will also lean on tuition increases, adding more pressure to cash-strapped students who may find it difficult to pay for their education. A number of states colleges and universities are expected to cap enrollment, putting more pressure on community colleges to meet rising demand.
Tuition increases continue to cover budget gaps, with community colleges, regional universities and state universities participating. The researchers found that tuition continues to outpace inflation by 2 to 3 times that rate.
The states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets and, therefore, must contain costs. When costs are not recovered by tax revenue, then tuition must be raised. Thus, community college students will continue to see regular and in some cases sharp increases in tuition and related costs over the coming years, adding stress to financially challenged families.