Can Community Colleges Survive the Economic Downturn?

Despite increased demand for education, budget cuts are causing two-year schools to cut back, denying a college education to thousands of students.

Want to pick up some new skills to boost your employability? Why not check the course catalog at your local community college? But get on it. Thanks to the economic downturn, community college funding is on the decline nationally. Some community colleges are getting harder to get into and others are shutting down entirely.

As of 2009 state funding is down 26.8 percent—a statistic calculated before this year's round of draconian cuts to higher education. Help isn't coming from the federal government either. In 2009, citing the importance of community colleges in retraining the workforce, President Obama pledged $12 billion in aid to the two-year schools, but by the time Congress finished with his proposal, the amount was down to $2 billion. As community college expert John Roueche told, "The rhetoric has been nothing but positive. Community colleges are the darlings in everybody's mind. But boy, talk is cheap." Indeed, with economic stimulus funds dried up, the most recent federal grant to the nation's community colleges was a meager $122 million.

Career changers looking to move into fields like nursing or computer science aren't the only ones affected. The relatively inexpensive tuition at community colleges has long made them appealing to students looking to save some cash before transferring to a four-year university. Open admissions policies also make them attractive to students who don't have the high school grades to get accepted at a competitive college.

Unfortunately those students, many of whom come from lower income and minority backgrounds, are stepping up to get their education and finding the classroom closed. Hardest hit are students in Texas, Arizona, and California, which together "enroll one of every three for-credit community college students." Earlier this year Texas legislators proposed completely shuttering some community colleges in order to save the state money, and in California, thanks to cutbacks, 150,000 students were turned away from community colleges in 2010. This year's proposal to slash $2 billion from higher education in the Golden State could mean as many as 400,000 students get turned away from college next year.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott doesn't see how the system can survive in the current economic climate. "You cannot maintain quality and keep the doors of these colleges open to everybody if you’re in a drastically declining financial environment," he says. Despite the universally acknowledged need for a well trained workforce, Scott acknowledges, "We are rationing our education."

photo (cc) via Flickr user cvconnell

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