Cutting class

Funding cuts, tuition hikes -- community colleges are feeling the pain.

| Thu Jun. 17, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Tidal Wave II is coming -- a natural disaster of a different sort. The moniker describes the influx of baby boomers' children into higher education during this decade. (Tidal Wave I was their parents.) The term was coined in California, but applies nationwide; there are nearly 640,000 more 17 year-olds in the United States than ten years ago. California alone will need to accommodate 700,000 more college-age students over the next six years, and many will look to the state's 109 community colleges for a reasonably-priced education. As California Community Colleges Chancellor Mark Drummond told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, “The light at the end of the tunnel is a train, and it's getting ever closer and faster."

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The nation’s 1,100 community colleges -- two-year, largely state and local government-funded that cost less than half as much as state schools -- are supposed to be the safety net of higher education. But right now, not only are they not prepared for additional students, they actually have had to deny access to students in states from California to Kentucky, Washington to Illinois.

At the root of the problem are ever shrinking state budgets. According to a report from the Center on Budget and Priorities, 30 states are projecting deficits for Fiscal Year 2005 totaling about $39 billion to $41 billion, meaning they have to scramble to find creative solutions for maintaining community colleges. (Or not so creative: often building maintenance gets neglected and class offerings get cut.) Nationwide, the average community college tuition and fees shot up 14 percent in 2003-04 from the previous school year.

(Last week, for example, the Tulsa Community College Board of Regents voted to raise tuition and fees by an average of 15.5 percent, a vote that caused anxiety for students and regents alike. Regent Robert Burton voted for the cuts but cautioned that if the school continues to raise tuition and fees, "we're going to price ourselves out of the market.”)

California may be feeling the squeeze most severely, with its $12 billion budget deficit. Students are paying premium prices for a state education. Tuition at California community colleges increased by more than 60 percent last year and are set to shoot up another 44 percent come Fall, meaning that students will have to spend $26 per unit rather than the $11 per unit cost two years ago. In Port Huron, MI, the officials at St. Clair County Community College responded to a 3 percent cut in their budget by hiking the student fees nearly as high and borrowing $2.5 million for "long-delayed maintenance projects," such as making sure there are proper carpets, roofs and windows on all their buildings.

In Ohio, the state capped the tuition increases at six percent, and Columbus State is edging its increase in just under that at 5.8% for the 2004-05 school year. This follows a steady increase, mirrored by community colleges across the nation, where Columbus raised their fees an average of six percent each year since 2000-01.

The tuition and fee hikes in higher education would be somewhat more palatable if schools were recouping their losses. But as it turns out the extra paychecks students are handing over for classes ranging from anthropology to dental hygiene go straight into the states' general funds rather than the schools' budgets.

What’s most galling about all this is that the students most likely to feel the cuts are those most in need of what community colleges offer: a higher degree and a pathway to higher socio-economic climes. Because up to 80 percent of community college students juggle work -- some full-time -- fewer course offerings mean a less flexible class schedule. What’s more, those prospective students who may not know the college system are at a disadvantage in vying for classes up against the students who might opt for community college courses as a cheaper alternative to also-strapped state university systems.

This concerns Sylvia Scott-Hayes, a trustee at the Los Angeles Community College District. She told the Wall Street Journal last year, "Many students who are turned away don't come back."

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