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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

Community Colleges Face Three Crises – and an Opportunity

Like the nation as a whole, community colleges face a web of interconnected crises. As the economy struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, historical data indicates that community colleges will experience a surge in enrollment during fall quarter. At the same time, they will receive significant budget cuts due to shortfalls in state tax revenues. Simultaneously, pressure to address the persistent educational inequalities experienced by students of color will likely intensify due to the heightened awareness that Black Lives Matter protests have raised about systemic racism in the United States. But to address these complex challenges, community colleges must first address the third crisis they face - recovering from the Great Recession.


During the Great Recession from 2008 – 2012, community colleges saw a spike in college attendance. A 2009 study by Richard Fry at the Pew Research Center reported that higher education enrollment for students between 18 – 24 years old had reached historical records in fall 2008 due to surges in community college enrollment, rising from 3.1 million to 3.4 million. Yet, throughout the Great Recession, state legislatures across the country cut community college funding due to shrinking tax revenue. Unfortunately, these budgets were never restored during the economic recovery that followed.

Worse, community college budgets have experienced a rise in overhead due to expenses like cost-of living-increases for employees, many of which were only partially funded by state legislatures. Simultaneously, tuition revenue has been declining due to decreased enrollment as students chose to take advantage of the booming economy rather than pursue education. A 2017 study by Jolanta Juszkiewicz for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) documented a steady, year by year, decline in enrollment at community colleges since the beginning of the economic recovery from the Great Recession in 2013.

Some community colleges have already begun making severe budget cuts due to these financial conditions. Clark College in southern Washington State recently announced $5.5 million in cuts that resulted in job losses for 12 classified employees, 10 faculty members, and 10 administrators. Their Vice-President of Administrative Services has stated that he predicts further cuts due to reductions the state legislature will have to impose on all government agencies in the state due to declines in tax revenue. These are currently estimated to be from 15% – 20% reductions. In tandem, Clark College has experienced a 31% drop in enrollment due to the pandemic, which will surely drive additional cuts.


Crises come in many forms. Some are immediate and require swift action to preserve the solvency of the institution. Others are long-term. These crises are slow-moving and percolate below people’s day-to-day awareness. Like the impact of climate change on ocean temperatures, the cumulative impact of incremental budget reductions resulting from decades-long fiscal neglect by state legislatures may be hard for people to perceive because they are happening so slowly.

One if the most significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has exacerbated and sped up trends that were already underway when the economy was healthy. For brick and mortar department stores like JC Penny’s who failed to innovate to compete with digital retailers like Amazon, it put them on the fast track to bankruptcy. Likewise, community colleges potentially face a disastrous web of crises due to the steady budget decay they have been experiencing since the Great Recession.

Community College Budgets

Over the past decade, four dominant budget trends have impacted the fiscal state of community colleges nationally. One has been a reliance on international enrollment. Since these students bring in higher tuition revenue, colleges and universities increasingly began to rely on international enrollment to address fiscal challenges resulting from the declining domestic student population and deceased state funding. The second has been an emphasis on performance-based funding to incentivize community colleges to make changes to improve doggedly low completion rates among students. Three, state and local promise programs that provide free tuition to recent high school graduates have been gaining popularity to increase the number of citizens with a secondary degree. Finally, tuition and fees have been steadily increasing to address budget gaps.

Yet, none of these methods solve the underlying budget challenges community colleges will face when they see a spike in enrollment this fall due to high unemployment rates. International enrollment has been dramatically declining in recent years due to government policy changes and a political climate that is less than welcoming to foreign students. This trend is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. Studies examining the impact of performance-based funding on student completion have so far proved inconclusive. Promise programs may become unsustainable as state and city tax bases shrink during this recession. And the rising cost of tuition is an equity issue creating a barrier for economically disadvantaged students who want to access higher education.

Community colleges are in uncharted territory. One could look back at how these institutions faired during the Great Depression, but as Ellen Schrecker’s 2009 article “The Bad Old Days: How Higher Education Faired During the Great Depression” in the Chronicle of Higher Education finds, there are too many differences between then and now to identify meaningful guidance. The community college system was still in its infancy and was not serving the broad range of student needs it does today. However, her reading of the 1937 report Depression, Recovery, and Higher Education found that students began choosing cheaper options like public universities rather than expensive private institutions. This is additional evidence that students may find the cheaper community college price tag more attractive than the high cost of tuition at a university this fall - especially if the majority of courses remain online.

Opportunities for Innovation

As panelists on AACC’s webinar "Community Colleges Addressing COVID-19 and Post COVID-19 Issues" emphasized, community college leaders need to use these current crises as opportunities to innovate. Some of these innovations will involve training faculty members to be more virtually prepared and dexterous so they can develop online classes that use best practices to support student success. Other innovations may involve redesigning curriculum to address post-COVID-19 workforce needs such as creating more fast-tracked, stackable credentials in partnership with industry. Finally, innovations will need to be made to the organization of the institution like developing new enrollment management plans, addressing the digital divide by ensuring students and faculty have access to technology, and scaling up the innovations that have already been made as community colleges responded to the COVID-19 crisis.

But all of these types of innovations will require funding.

Community college presidents, board members, and other senior leaders have a responsibility to educate politicians on the federal and state level about the crises this vital sector of the higher education system faces. As new stimulus packages are discussed in congress, and state legislatures make strategic budget decisions to address shortfalls in tax revenues, community college leaders need to advocate for solutions that help legislators reach their goals of balancing their state budgets while also advancing equity-minded policy.

Funding Strategies

There are several actions federal and state legislators should consider to support community colleges in their states.

One, examine laws and policies that inhibit community colleges from thriving. For example, unlike other states such as California, community colleges in Washington State are prohibited from using local levies to generate funds. Removing barriers so colleges can raise capital locally will provide these institutions with the financial resources they need to address equity issues.

Two, provide additional grant funding designed to address educational equity issues. The CARES Act was a good first step, but additional funds will be needed if community colleges are to effectively serve the wave of students that are poised to come to these institutions in the fall. These grants could be designed to address specific equity issues and strengthen the Guided Pathways efforts already underway at institutions across the country. They should also address the costs associated with training faculty to be more virtually proficient educators.

Three, evaluate performance-based funding models to ensure that they are truly improving success rates among students of color. Can these models be evaluated with an equity lens to investigate if adjustments need to be made to the funding framework to address equity issues? For instance, if a student of color achieves 15-credits of college credit, which evidence suggests is a milestone that increases the likelihood that the student will complete their degree, can the college receive additional funding? This will incentivize colleges to develop programs to help students of color reach those milestones.

Finally, as cities explore reallocating funding from police departments to social service agencies to create social environments where law enforcement is not as necessary, leaders should consider redirecting some of that funding to community colleges. Helping students access educational and workforce training programs will go far in helping them improve their economic conditions, which will in turn provide pathways out of economically disadvantaged environments that have historically been over-policed.

Community colleges serve more undergraduates in the United States than any other higher education sector and the largest proportion of first-generation students and people of color. Government officials looking to make equity-minded budget decisions should be enthusiastic about supporting these institutions. Community college leaders need to seize this opportunity to work with federal and state government officials to heal the community college sector - so community colleges can help heal the nation.

Daniel Tarker is an administrator at North Seattle College, a faculty member at Shoreline Community College, and a freelance organizational leadership consultant. This opinion piece is based on his dissertation “Crisis Management and Executive Leadership at Community Colleges” completed at Oregon State University.

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