CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of government aid that Single Stop USA has helped students and their families obtain. The total is around $40 million.
While higher education has become a hot talking point on the presidential campaign trail, community colleges are struggling with dramatically shrinking budgets, leaving thousands of prospective students unable to access vital pathways to good jobs.
One community college in North Carolina had to cut its nursing program so severely that many students are on a waiting list for available courses.
President Obama, who has said he would like every American to have at least one year of higher education or job training (prompting GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum to call him a “snob”), acknowledged the value of community colleges last week at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H.
“We have to keep developing new technology that helps us use less energy,” Obama said. “We’ve got to keep relying on American know-how and ingenuity that comes from places like this one, Nashua Community College.”
Many education leaders agree that enabling more students to gain such know-how is a key to reviving the American economy, but administrators must employ a considerable amount of ingenuity these days to maintain adequate course offerings in the face of budget cuts, and to help students struggling to keep up with rising tuition costs.
During her tenure as president of Los Angeles City College, Jamillah Moore has witnessed her budget drop from $67 million in 2007 to $53 million in 2012, despite an increase in enrollment during that period. She anticipates a further cut to $50 million in 2013.
“When I arrived at LACC, I knew that we were on the verge of a budget crisis,” she said. “When we got to 2008, we were into it. So, the challenge … is that we still have this increased need … but dwindling resources.”
According to Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges, the schools’ financial hardships correspond to the nation’s overall economic troubles.
“Community colleges get a lot of their funding from state and local sources,” Phillippe said. “In an economic downturn, certainly when the state doesn’t have the funds, sometimes the local tax base will protect them a little bit, for those who have that sort of funding, but with the collapse of the housing market, that certainly has impacted the local tax funds.”
In California, where property taxes are a major source of funds for community colleges, a steady decline in the state’s real-estate market has forced the schools to slash budgets and increase tuition.
To make ends meet, Moore has already had to cut two of LACC’s three summer sessions, and the remaining one is on the chopping block this year.
“We probably cannot afford to do a summer session, so, yeah, we’re going to have to start making cuts in other places,” Moore said. “We’re trying to avoid continuing to make cuts in the classroom.”
The budget woes are especially painful because educators know that community colleges are a prime source of the skills that could help unemployed people find work.
According to a New York Times story last week, Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., has only 275 slots available for a popular nursing program. With more than 1,000 students on a waiting list for those classes, the school added a required “pre-nursing” program for students to take while they wait, but it had to place more than 400 students on a waiting list for that program.
To try to bridge the budget gap, states have increased tuition fees at many community colleges. In California, the cost for a course unit has nearly doubled since 2009, putting classes out of reach for needy students.
Many community colleges have turned to independent service firms such as Single Stop USA to help students cope with the rising costs. “Basically, what we’re doing is giving them a short-term boost to help with their financial stability … by helping them access the tax credits available to them,” said Julie Kashen, senior vice president at Single Stop.
Her company has branches in seven states—California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—and in 2011 helped 20,000 students and their families get a total of $40 million in government resources so that they could continue their education.
“Financial intervention can make the difference between dropping out and staying in school,” Kashen said.
Last year, Single Stop received a $1.1 million grant from the White House Social Innovation Fund that was matched by private donors; the funds have allowed the service firm to expand to six more community colleges, she said.
Last month, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden—an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria—announced that the White House will make another $500 million available this year to fund partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train workers in the skills that employers need.
The money comes from the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which received $2 billion in the 2009 economic-stimulus package to pay for such grants.
This article appears in the March 5, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.