Texas community colleges fight for funding -- and respect

Posted Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- Texas community college leaders face daunting budget challenges because they say the state has failed to provide enough funding to cope with a historic growth spurt over the past several years.

Leaders at several North Texas community colleges, including Tarrant County College, say they might have to impose layoffs and increase class sizes unless the Legislature boosts funding this year.

The colleges play a vital role in educating returning veterans and molding the state's workforce.

Draft budget recommendations would reduce community college funding by 5 to 6 percent over the next two years, according to officials at the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

"It would be felt," said TCC Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley, citing what she described as a "tight, tight, tight" budget.

State funds constitute nearly 20 percent of the system's current operating budget of $351.1 million.

Educators at small college systems express similar fears. Ranger College President Bill Campion, whose college was briefly targeted for closure during the 2011 session, expresses frustration at the possibility of a decrease in state funding.

"We're going to do the best we can to serve as many students as we can, but you can only go so far with fiscal conservatism," he said. "We hope this is just a scare tactic."

Campion's 1,870-student system, which includes campuses in Brownwood and Stephenville as well as Ranger, is a "very rapidly growing institution" that has increased enrollment by about 10 percent, he said.

"In the last decade, we've just seen a tremendous financial reduction in appropriations from the state, and that's a real challenge, especially to a growing institution."

Although overall enrollment at community colleges is lower than the previous semester, administrators say state assistance has failed to keep pace with years of steady growth.

Hundreds of thousands of students have flooded into community colleges since the middle of the last decade, attracted by low tuition and diverse course offerings, from welding to computer science and engineering.

"We've gone up 15,000 [students] in six years," Hadley said.

The Lone Star College System in the Houston area -- which drew national attention with a campus shooting last week -- has added 30,000 students in the last five years. That's higher than the enrollment at a number of major universities.

Although community colleges escaped a budget cut in the 2011 Legislature, when many agencies were getting slashed, spending remained flat and did not cover a 20 percent increase in enrollment during the previous two years.

The state also cut $130 million for employee health benefits, a 38 percent decrease, and imposed a $98 million reduction in its coverage of retirement benefits, a 48 percent cut.

"What we've been facing is jokingly what I would call the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome," said Bill Holda, president of Kilgore College and board chairman of the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

"We can't get any respect."

Holda said the state's 50 community colleges, with over 725,000 students, constitute more than half the total enrollment in higher education but "have not had the prestige" of better-funded four-year universities, many of which have big budgets and nationally recognized research and athletic programs.

Nevertheless, community colleges have legions of defenders, including many in the Legislature. They say the schools are at the front lines of building an educated, competitive workforce.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who has more than a half-dozen community college systems in his East Texas district, predicts that community colleges will ultimately escape a cut and may even get an increase.

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a member of the House Higher Education Committee, said: "Community colleges, as far as I'm concerned, are where it's happening. They're a big part of making education more affordable and more accessible for our students."

Many students go to community colleges to learn technical skills, helping curtail what business leaders say is a severe shortage of skilled workers.

Others attend as a steppingstone toward a degree from a four-year college or university. A number of community colleges have outreach programs and veterans clubs to help military personnel develop civilian job skills or start toward a college degree.

Educating veterans

"We've seen a real growth in our veteran population," Holda said. "A lot of them bring back mechanical and technical skills that can translate fairly quickly into some high-paying careers."

Tarrant County College officials say 1 in 18 residents of the county takes a class in the system each year.

A class load of 15 semester hours costs $825, while a comparable load at public-funded area universities could run $3,300 to $4,500, community college officials say.

For many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, the price tag opens to the door to an education that wouldn't otherwise be available.

"I run across a lot of classmates who are just struggling to get through each semester because of problems at home or because they just got laid off their job," said Stefanie Reed, a 29-year-old mother of two who graduated in 2012 from the TCC South Campus and occasionally works at the campus bookstore.

"This is really their only option as far as making something out of themselves."

Brandon Tucker, a 31-year-old veteran who played trumpet in the Army Band, attended TCC to take low-price preparatory courses that led to two degrees at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The Arlington resident is now back at community college to work toward a third degree.

He said he was initially drawn to "the affordability" and quickly discovered that "the classes were smaller and you have much better interaction with the professors."

With a spring semester enrollment of 46,700, the TCC system constitutes the sixth-largest college or university in Texas.

Its enrollment increased annually from 37,857 in 2008 to an all-time high of about 51,300 in fall 2012 before dropping to the current level.

Statewide enrollment peaked at 780,000 in 2011 and is now 725,000.

Enrollment trends seem to run counter to economic patterns.

The peak enrollment came during the recession, when many job-seeking students poured into community colleges to get marketable skills. Now, with the economy recovering, jobs are easier to find, particularly in the booming oil industry, and attendance is tapering off.

Budget writers say the proposed decrease in community college funding -- from $1.73 billion in the current biennium to $1.64 billion in 2014-15 -- reflects a drop in "contact hours," the measurement for class attendance. But community college officials say the proposal is only a snapshot of the current situation and does not reflect past growth that wasn't funded by the Legislature.

"When the enrollment is up, they don't give us the money," said Ray Laughter, vice chancellor of the Lone Star College System. "When the enrollment is down, they take it away."

Serving students

Hadley, the TCC chancellor, said: "We're operating at a deficit level because 20 percent of our growth two sessions ago was never funded, and those students haven't gone away. We're still serving those students, so we really do need the money."

Community college administrators from across the state traveled to Austin last week as leaders of their association presented the schools' case before the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.

Community college officials are asking for $1.9 billion for the biennium, $320 million above the recommendation in the draft budget and $232 million over the current biennium.

The proposal includes $196 million to fund at least a third of the growth that was unfunded by the 2011 Legislature.

The colleges also hope to at least partly offset the reductions in the retirement and health insurance benefits.

The community colleges' proposal also includes a new component that would require 10 percent of their budget to be based on student performance, with points given for milestones such as completion of developmental courses and transfers to four-year colleges.

The restructuring is meant to boost community colleges' success and help Texas expand its workforce and keep pace with other states, as well as foreign countries.

State aid represents the third major source of income for community colleges, along with tuition and property tax revenue.

TCC gets about $51 million a year in state revenue, which would fall to about $48 million with a 6 percent cut, Hadley said.

A reduction in state funding, she said, could force TCC to increase class sizes, reduce adjunct professors and defer maintenance at some of its older campuses.

"It's those kind of things that we will be forced to do if we continue to get these cuts," she said.

A tuition increase approved by trustees in August took effect with the start of the spring semester.

The new rates, in effect through 2015, range from $55 per semester hour for in-district tuition -- a 6 percent increase -- to $86 for out-of-district rates -- a 13 percent increase.

Bigger costs

Kilgore College, home of the famous Kilgore Rangerettes drill team, was forced to cut 56 employees after the state reduced its support for insurance and health benefits, said Holda, the college president.

"We cut $2 million out of the payroll and had to add $1.6 million to benefits for 56 fewer employees," he said.

Despite the concerns, community college leaders, as well as a number of lawmakers, also point out that the preliminary budget is a starting point and could undergo significant revision before lawmakers pass a final version.

"I really don't think they'll face a budget cut this session," said Eltife, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

"I think you're going to see the Legislature embrace their proposal and work with them this session."

Holda said that it could take at least two legislative sessions to reverse the funding trend but that his statewide group is energized and eager to work with lawmakers.

"We've got a great story," he said.

"What we have to do is get out and convince the leadership and the Legislature and the public that we're worthy of being funded. We really hold a lot of the future to the State of Texas."

Hadley acknowledges that the colleges face challenging times but also asserts that they are "equal to the challenge."

"We have to be," she said.

"After all, we're here for our students."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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