Higher ed cuts would hit community colleges, minority students hardest

DENVER – Cuts to higher education hit community colleges and smaller institutions especially hard, some educators claim. As a result, a potential 50 percent cut to higher education funding next year could jeopardize a system that is tasked with helping underprivileged and minority students make their way into four-year institutions, as well as with providing a trained workforce for Colorado businesses.

Arapahoe Community College.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, has said that the state faces a $1.7 billion budget gap next year and will likely have to cut $600 million from education, half of that coming from higher education.

Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), told the Colorado Independent that in the face of a possible $300 million cut to higher education next year, she fears her system will be disproportionately affected as it has been in past years. The cuts could lead to the elimination of some programs, she says.

“If we were to cover that 50 percent loss in state funding with tuition increases, that would significantly cut off access for students in Colorado,” McCallin said. She explained that while institutions such as the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) can raise tuition or bring in out of state students – who pay more – large increases in costs to students go against one of the core missions of community colleges.

CCCS serves 45 percent of all minority students enrolled in Colorado colleges.

“There is no doubt about it that if there is a 50 percent decrease in funding for higher education, we cannot keep doing the things that we are doing and we cannot keep providing the opportunities that we have been,” McCallin said.

She adds that a 20 percent increase in CCCS’s student body last year, combined with an 8.7 percent cut in funding, caused community colleges to suffer a 28.7 percent decrease in per-student funding.

“My per-student funding has plummeted, whereas, everybody else may not see any change in their per-student funding,” McCallin said. “The funding system as it is now isn’t carrying policy directive.”

The College Opportunity Fund, created during the administration of former Gov. Bill Owens, was supposed to create a system in which funding was attached to students rather than programs. It was intended to increase competition between colleges and reduce redundancies between programs. It was also intended to exempt a portion of higher education funding from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and allow for tuition increases. According to some critics, it has failed.

The fund has been criticized on two fronts. Many, including Sen. Morse, say the fund has hurt a system that was supposed to be streamlined to reduce redundancies. He noted that schools fighting over stipend dollars force programs like CU and Colorado State University (CSU) to create matching programs that in turn reduce efficiencies and reduce funding available to students.

McCallin said that in the community college system, the notion that those dollars are tied to students is a farce. She said that when her student body went up by 20 percent, the Colorado Legislature simply cut the value of each student’s stipend by 20 percent. She said that while institutions like CU, which had a nearly flat enrollment, saw cuts to tuition, they would see an equivalent increase in fees for service – money provided to schools serving a unique purpose to the state. She said her system did not receive those increases.

“We had been told that the college opportunity fund would increase funding,” she said. “We did a lot of outreach, drew in students, but then were let down by the program. The state did not follow through with the funding for it, so it was a false incentive.”

The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education’s (WICHE) Brian Prescott said McCallin was essentially right. He said the reality is that due to an amendment to the legislation that allows money to be transferred between stipend dollars and fee for service dollars, the incentive is a farce.

He said the program has had none of the effects it was intended to have beyond removing higher education from TABOR restrictions, which he said was crucial to higher education’s continuing existence in the state.

“Irrespective of whether they bring in fewer students or not they still get the same amount of money,” Prescott said. “It is not going to change any institutional behavior.” Prescott is director of policy research at WICHE.

He said that because stipend amounts are set in part by projected enrollment numbers, the community college that has an increase in students over that projection sees the legislature re-purposing fee for service money into their stipend dollars. “All they do is they re-purpose some of the fee for service money that the community colleges were getting and call it stipends. So the sum total of the money that flows into the system from both streams is the same amount.”

The voucher program was initially conceived of before it was passed as having a value of $4,400 per student per year. However, Prescott said the program started at around $2,400 and reached a peak of $3,000 before being cut. The voucher is losing value in “huge, large amounts,” he said.

McCallin said cuts to a school that does not have the benefactor support like that of CU and CSU is unfair. She said her school receives over 30 percent of its funding from the state. CU Boulder gets only 8 to 10 percent of its funding from the state and will be able to weather the storm, she said.

McCallin said she received 32 percent of her funding from the state, 23 percent from tuition and fees, and 34 percent from grants and contracts.

Prescott agreed with McCallin’s assessment. “Community colleges don’t have the ability to raise money from other private sources. If the legislature makes a $300 million cut and they distribute that cut across the board, that is like a flat tax, which is going to hurt the poor people the most heavily because the marginal utility of each dollar that they pay is so much greater than the wealthy.”

From Morse’s point of view, the Colorado system of higher education does not function as a system. He says that it needs to be revamped to reduce inefficiencies and make it easier for students to use lower cost community colleges for their first two years, while taking their last two at a University. He also said that in some cases it is appropriate for some community colleges to become technical schools.

Legislation was passed this year to coordinate offerings at 14 community colleges with university programs in an effort to push exactly Morse’s proposal of streamlining programs. The legislation moves Colorado closer to programs in California and Florida that see students taking two years in inexpensive community college systems and then transferring into four-year programs.

While McCallin noted the bills as successful legislation, she said money was needed to serve the mandates. She said that with further cuts coming, it is likely that technical and professional programs – even those benefiting from grants and contracts – would see cuts. To say nothing of programs that did not see similar dollars from outside sources.

McCallin said that while 34 percent of the community college budget comes from grants and contracts, those dollars are specific to many of the colleges’ technical and training programs. “It is important to note that the $64 million we get in grants and contracts can only be used for one purpose and one purpose only. That money can’t be used to alleviate other budgetary issues.”

She mentioned that Pueblo Community College alone has 66 programs that serve corporate entities that contracted CCCS to provide education for their workforce.

What is very clear is that cuts to CCCS will limit access to Colorado’s higher education system in a way that will decrease the knowledge base of many underserved Colorado residents.

“When you have a massive drop in state funding everybody is going to suffer,” McCallin said.

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