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Education Funding

State Budgets Push Community Colleges to Rebuff Students

By Sean Cavanagh — June 04, 2003 7 min read

Year after year, community colleges have welcomed the broadest spectrum of fresh high school graduates and working adults, from students who lacked the academic preparation for a four-year college education to those without the financial means to pay for it.

President Ronald A. Williams of Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., is concerned that the school has had to turn away qualified applicants and increase costs to its students.
President Ronald A. Williams of Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., is concerned that the school has had to turn away qualified applicants and increase costs to its students
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

But in recent months, campus leaders at two-year institutions across the country say that underlying mission—providing open access to higher education—has been put in jeopardy.

Cash-starved legislatures in several states are slashing millions of dollars from higher education budgets. As a result, scores of community colleges will have to eliminate classes, ax entire academic programs, and turn away hundreds of students, with no assurances on when the doors will again open wide.

Those changes come at a time of increasing demand for a two-year postsecondary education, officials in K-12 and higher education say.

Shannon Roseta, the senior counselor at Winston Churchill High School in Eugene, Ore., said this year’s graduates seem most worried about the tuition spikes that are accompanying class reductions at a popular local community college.

“It’s a facility used by every type of person in the town, from high school students to teachers going back to school,” Ms. Roseta said of nearby Lane Community College. Rising costs, she said, are “a topic of conversation every day here.”

Even in states where community colleges have managed to keep a financial foothold during budget battles, services are being eroded, campus leaders say. That’s because enrollment is climbing, ratcheting up demand for new courses at a time when community colleges can’t afford to offer them.

Applicants Turned Away

Faced with a financial squeeze, community colleges, which serve an estimated 45 percent of the nation’s first-time freshman undergraduates, have joined four-year schools in raising tuition.

A typical case: Prince George’s Community College, in Largo, Md., which decided to raise prices for 2003-04 from $75 to $83 per credit hour, and bump up other student fees, too.

But some prospective students at the school won’t even get through the front door. Last fall, the college turned away 200 to 300 applicants for its nursing school, and others seeking entry to classes needed as prerequisites for that program, according to its office of instruction. In its teacher-certification and teacher- preparation programs, Prince George’s could not accept an estimated 100 to 200 students who sought spaces.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I would venture to say we will have double the number [next year] who cannot attend classes,” said Vera Zdravkovich, the college’s vice president for instruction. Demand for classes will continue to climb, as the tepid economy drives more people back to school, and the ranks of qualified high school students swell, she predicted.

Prince George’s Community College’s 37,817 students, including those who are taking courses for credit and those who are not, attend school while raising families, working day jobs, and commuting by public transportation, said its president, Ronald A. Williams. Roughly 76 percent of its credit students are black, and 66 percent are female.

“If we were in private industry, I’d keep raising the cost,” Mr. Williams said. “The fact is, we’re not in private industry. The students who are affected cannot afford these changes.”

Maryland lawmakers gave state community colleges $184.6 million for fiscal 2004, which begins July 1 of this year, or a 1 percent increase over the $182.6 million allocation in fiscal 2003, according a Maryland Higher Education Commission analysis.

But community college enrollment rose by 6 percent, from 77,867 to 82,731, from 2001 to 2002, leaving them with less cash per student, said Janice B. Doyle, the commission’s assistant secretary for finance and policy.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney, a first-term Republican, has proposed cutting spending on community colleges from $220 million to $191.5 million in fiscal 2004 as part of a restructuring of higher education in the state.

California faces a $38 billion state budget deficit for an 18-month period spanning the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 fiscal years. Last month, California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, proposed restoring $305 million in funding to state community colleges, after an earlier plan for more severe cuts drew objections. But even with that additional cash, community colleges still would see a $493 million cut.

The Florida legislature so far has proposed keeping community colleges’ general revenue for 2003-04 at roughly $798 million. But enrollment within the 28- school system—one of the nation’s largest—has risen by 8 percent each of the past two years, said J. David Armstrong, the chancellor of the Florida Community College System. The upshot is that the colleges are unable to meet demand.

Widespread Reductions

Other states are looking at deep cuts. In Oregon, where the 17 community colleges were allotted $428 million in 2001 for a two-year funding cycle, lawmakers are considering a funding level of anywhere between $397 million and $418 million to cover the next two-year period. Enrollment has risen by 6,000 students, or about 6 percent over the last recorded year, from 2001 to 2002.

“At the level we had in 2001, we had to turn away students. This year, it’s going to be a lot worse,” said Andrea Henderson, the executive director of the Oregon Community College Association. Over the past year, at least 35 technical programs at different community colleges in the state have been shut down, she said.

Many states do not allow their public two-year institutions to formally limit enrollment, said George Boggs, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges, a Washington organization that represents more than 1,100 such schools nationwide.

But when budget cuts force schools to lay off faculty and cut classes and programs, the net effect is the same, he said. Some two-year colleges could respond to cuts by increasing class sizes, Mr. Boggs said, but that option is often limited by accreditation requirements, state standards, and even lack of space on campus.

An Earlier Crunch

Two-year institutions faced similar upheaval in the early 1990s, Mr. Boggs said, when a poor economy forced them to turn away students.

The new space limitations are coming as the price of a community college education is growing more costly. From 2002 to 2003, annual tuition at public two-year schools rose in 48 states, by an average of $1,808 to $1,957, or 8 percent, according to a survey released in February by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif. Average yearly tuition at four-year public colleges climbed from $3,379 to $3,718, or 10 percent, during that time.

About 40 percent of students at public two-year colleges receive some sort of financial aid, compared with 59 percent of four-year enrollees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And nearly 54 percent of students at public, two-year institutions work at least 35 hours a week, compared with roughly 26 percent of students at public four-year colleges, government statistics show.

Community college students with work or family obligations are unlikely to keep pursuing higher education if denied a spot in a course or program the first time around, some suggest.

“If you’re low-income, and a first-generation college student, you might be easily discouraged,” said Joni Finney, a vice president with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Schools like Lane Community College in Oregon have begun practicing what amounts to de facto capping of enrollment, according to its president, Mary Spilde. In 2002-03, the college eliminated seven professional and technical programs, including business management and industrial maintenance, as it was forced to cut $5 million from its budget of roughly $69 million.

To recoup lost state funding, Lane raised tuition by 22 percent in 2002-03, Ms. Spilde said.

At Winston Churchill High, Ms. Roseta said, about 31 percent of this year’s senior class had applied to community colleges, a slight increase over past years. Many of those students hope eventually to attend four-year schools, she said, and for some students community colleges are the most viable first step. But they need certain classes to complete that journey, she said.

“Fifty percent of them,” Ms. Roseta noted, “are going with the idea they’ll transfer to the University of Oregon.”

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