Community colleges have traditionally been institutes of higher education, allowing anyone to attend, regardless of their academic ability or income level. Thanks to state funding, these schools were designed for both those who would struggle in four-year colleges right out of high school and those who could not afford the tuition at the local university. Community colleges were also an option for adults who needed additional training to advance in their current careers or switch over to industries with greater potential.
All of these purposes come at a cost, and until recently, community colleges – with the help of state funding – were able to pay the price. However, the recent economic slowdown, combined with a rising unemployment rate, has boosted enrollment at these schools while cutting the available money. The result has been a serious financial crunch for many community colleges across the country. In light of these recent economic difficulties, many schools are faced with challenging decisions over how best to serve their student population on a fraction of the money to which they are accustomed. This video provides an update on the financial situation facing community colleges in Texas.
Lone Star State in Dire Straits
While the entire country is feeling the economic pinch at the community college level, three states appear to be grappling with their financial reality more severely than others. Texas, California, and Arizona are all left wondering how to keep community colleges open and running in tough economic times, and in Texas, in particular, community college officials are forced to weigh some fairly unpleasant solutions in response to the trouble.
According to a report at My San Antonio, Alamo colleges in Texas may be forced to limit their enrollment for the next academic year. The trustees for the schools are currently considering a proposal to reduce enrollment by about 3,800 students. The plan comes in light of a $17 million shortfall on a $290 million budget and will affect five community colleges within the state of Texas. To accommodate the reduction, seats in classrooms would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and the rest of the students would be placed on a waiting list until courses open up again. This video from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board discusses the revenue mix for Texas community colleges and the state budgeting process.
With the financial crisis not showing any signs of slowing, the trustees of the schools are faced with three possible answers: raise tuition, raise property taxes or reduce the school size. Gary Beitzel, chairman of the board, told My San Antonio, "Over the last eight or nine years, we have always seemed to get the job done without cutting back on operations. We have to draw the line somewhere."
The budget for the Alamo schools will not be approved until July, but trustees have been providing input on how to balance the numbers prior to that summer deadline. The trustees believe that limiting enrollment is preferable to raising tuition rates or taxes, but there are mixed views on the enrollment solution as well. Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, told My San Antonio, "Personally, I have a problem with not offering an opportunity to people to change their economic situation through education."
However, other trustees do not believe it is right to raise tuition or property taxes until the Texas community colleges can show a greater rate of success within their student population. Trustee Blakely Fernandez said, "I am having a hard time raising taxes or tuition if we continue doing the same thing we are always doing. I would like to see the chancellor lay out a plan for what would get us to a really productive success rate."
Texas Schools Facing Possible Closure
Alamo schools are not the only Texas colleges facing difficult decisions. According to a report at Stateline, the president of Frank Phillips College recently received a letter from the House of Representatives, explaining that the school may be on a list of community college closures due to budget cuts. The state was facing the potential inability to continue to provide funding to these schools, leaving them no choice but to close their doors. Frank Phillips College serves a relatively small population but is the only institute of higher education within a 9,300 square-mile area in Texas. Closing would mean some students would have to drive up to an hour away to get a similar program at another Texas school. This video discusses the budgeting process for Texas community colleges.
Fortunately for Frank Phillips, the House has since modified its plan and will be providing some funding to the colleges after all. However, the amount of funding is drastically reduced, and colleges are still faced with difficult decisions in light of less money for the next academic year. One of the victims of the budget cuts was health benefits for college employees, which may be reduced from 83 percent down to 50 percent of the total cost of health coverage, according to the New York Times.
Johnson told the New York Times, "Colleges are going to get smaller; there is going to be less access; there's going to be fewer employees; there's going to be fewer programs. And that has ramifications for the state's economy."
When budget cuts are combined with explosive enrollment growth, the problem becomes magnified. Statewide, community college enrollment has grown by almost 67 percent since 2000, and community colleges are now educating more than 50 percent of all the college students in the state. The growing numbers of students, coupled with the shrinking funding, has become a problem of monumental proportions and potential solutions may have a direct impact on the look of higher education in Texas for many years to come.
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