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

Funding WA State Community Colleges is an Anti-Racist Issue

Like many community college administrators in Washington state, I’m wrestling with how to enact severe budget cuts ranging between 15% - 25% while trying to minimize the impact on the educational experiences of our students. It’s an impossible task. As I listen to my colleagues develop various nightmarish scenarios to address these cuts, I think we all feel a deep sadness about how the hollowed-out financial condition of community colleges in Washington State is already negatively impacting some of our most marginalized communities – and it’s bound to get worse for them.

And make no mistake. This is an anti-racist issue.

Washington State’s community college funding model is broken and helps perpetuate economic disparities among historically marginalized communities. Its ironic that many faculty and staff who work at these institutions take great pride in serving the most vulnerable communities in our country – first generations students, immigrants, refugees, people of color. Yet, the truth is that they work in a system that was designed to oppress these groups – and nowhere is that more evident than when reflecting on how the community college funding model continues to fail these students.

As protesters march in the streets to raise awareness about racial injustice and police brutality, many students of color are trying to enroll at community colleges due to the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many want to improve their skills to help them find work. Others want to pursue a degree. But they are being turned away. Community colleges aren’t able to provide the classes these students want to take because of the WA State legislature’s broken higher education funding policies.

The anti-racist movement teaches us that it is not enough to be non-racist. Claiming that one is not racist is a passive stance. To be anti-racist is to actively challenge the personal behaviors and institutional structures that perpetuate the strands of racism threaded throughout the culture and history of the United States. And one of the structures that needs to be actively re-examined, dismantled, and re-constructed is Washington State’s community colleges funding model. It needs to be anti-racist.

Historical Roots of Racism and Classism in Community Colleges

As Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel wrote in The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Economic Opportunity in America 1900-1985, the university presidents who first advocated for the creation of what was then called the junior college system in the early 1900s did not do so with the lofty purpose of raising up marginalized communities. Their primary motivation was to placate students who wanted access to higher education. They thought junior college students could earn their 2-year degree and go out into the workforce. They did not want these students tarnishing their “senior colleges” and research universities with their presence.

Community colleges have evolved considerably over the past century. In addition to continuing to provide workforce programs to help students develop the skills to find a living-wage job, they have also become gateways to higher education for first generation college students through transfer programs.

But examine the funding structure for community colleges – especially in Washington State – and it is apparent that the classist and racist mindset that catalyzed the birth of this higher education sector continues to undermine these institutions.

WA State’s Broken Community College Funding Model

Community and technical colleges in WA State are primarily funded though state funding based on enrollment and student tuition. Yet, since the Great Recession, both sources of revenue have been declining as the overhead for doing business has increased – primarily due to actions taken by the state legislature. During the Great Recession, budgets were slashed. Then when the economic recovery began, enrollment steadily declined as people chose to go back to work. But the state legislature did not restore the funding it cut from these institutions even as revenues from tax dollars soared.

Instead, the WA state legislature passed multiple cost of living (COLA) increases for state employees without fully funding them. The legislature told community colleges that they would have to find the funding to meet the COLA requirements. In addition, other rising costs in overhead were never addressed.

These actions by the WA state legislature weakened the core of community colleges in the state. Though neglect, they made these instructions less resilient to another economic downturn. Nobody could have predicted COVID-19, but another recession was bound to happen. It could have been caused by any number of factors. And WA State community colleges would be facing the same stark situation now before them – massive budget cuts, layoffs, and program elimination even as students clamor for access to education.

Worse, the state legislature prohibits community colleges in WA State from raising revenue locally through bonds and levies. In more progressive states like California, community colleges regularly use these local fundraising methods. It creates quite a contrast if you’ve ever visited a community college in California and compared it to those in Washington. The California community colleges are filled with new buildings and state of the art technology. Washington state community colleges always appear to be in a state of decay. A student shared a story with me last year about studying in class when rain started pouring into the room through the roof – and this classroom was on the bottom floor of a three-story building.

An even more troubling aspect of the financial structures that shape community colleges is the concept of performance based funding. In Washington State, this model is called the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI). Currently only constituting a small percentage of the state budget allocation for community colleges, it awards colleges with funding when students achieve certain academic milestones toward completing their degrees and certificates. The underlying problem with this approach is how politicians assess success. While its laudable that they want to incentivize degree attainment since data shows this translates into long-term economic benefits for students, it also turns a blind eye to many of the historically marginalized students community colleges serve.

This model fails to see immigrants and refugees who want to just take some ESL classes and return to work to support their families. It fails to see the University of Washington student who takes a statistics class at the community college because the tuition is cheaper. It fails to see the community member who may be taking a class for personal enrichment. It fails to see the students who finish their programs and transfer to a university without applying for their degree from the college. The success of the students are not counted. This blindness artificially deflates the success data on community colleges – again damaging funding of these institutions.

One has to wonder if this neglect of community colleges has something to do with the historically marginalized populations these institutions primarily serve. As an extreme example, I do not imagine a parent of a student at Harvard tolerating their child sitting in a classroom with rain pouring in through the roof. But community college students do not often come from families with great amounts of privilege, so they are easy to ignore and neglect because their voices are not amplified by parents with checkbooks in hand and political connections on speed dial.

The Washington State legislature needs to take an anti-racist approach to addressing the financial crisis facing community colleges. During this time of economic upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic when many people in WA State will likely try to return to school in fall to improve their skills to return to the workforce, they need to pass funding packages that help sustain these

institutions. They also need to begin a process to restructure how these institutions are funded so they can be more sustainable in the future. The consequence of not taking these actions? Many of our most vulnerable citizens will be denied access to education which will have a longlisting impact on their economic lives – and the economic life of historical marginalized communities in this state.

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