Harming community colleges and the economy

May 15, 2011 

— The state Senate's education subcommittee released its budget targets Tuesday, and the bull's-eyes are painted on students of all ages. The plan cuts too close to the heart of our state's economic recovery: education.

The Senate plan bleeds another $40 million from education budgets, including an additional $21 million from community colleges. For North Carolina's economy to return to strength and stability, people need to get back to work. Community colleges are the answer.

As an instructor at Wake Tech in Raleigh, I've seen students find jobs and turn their lives around after retraining. Their efforts strengthen our communities and our economy, yet just as the economy is turning around, we will be turning more of our future work force away from the training it needs.

Since 2007, the community college system has grown faster than any other educational sector. Thousands of newly unemployed or underemployed workers retrain, earn certifications or complete the first two years of college work at community colleges. Enrollment statewide has grown by 25 percent, or 50,000 full-time-equivalent students. Last year, an all-time high of 850,000 students were enrolled in community colleges. That's one in every 18 residents. State funding has not kept up.

Since 2007, in spite of all this growth, our budgets have been systematically cut. Though colleges grew by 25 percent, the General Fund appropriation, per student, dropped by 12 percent.

The result? Reduced course offerings, overcrowded classrooms, heavier teaching loads and fewer instructors and counselors. Yet in spite of these obstacles, we counseled, tutored, taught. Our students worked, graduated and found jobs.

Now community college funding, already facing recommended cuts of $108 million (10.1 percent) in the state House budget, would be bled another $21 million in the Senate's proposal.

More damage comes from a House amendment to reduce state lottery funding for scholarships. It would totally wipe out the Education Lottery Scholarships for community college students for the first time in the fund's history. Last year, the fund provided $15.9 million in scholarships to more than 15,000 community college students statewide. It's difficult to see how this sort of bleeding helps the economy.

Maybe the Senate is trying to equalize cuts to education. The House budget shows Department of Public Instruction cuts at 8.1 percent, community colleges, 10.1 percent, and the UNC system, 15 percent. Senate target proposals would shift funds so DPI would be cut 10.1 percent, community colleges 12 percent and UNC 12.5 percent. That approach doesn't match the money with need.

A 12 percent cut to community college budgets does tremendous damage, and those damaged can afford it the least: the students working for credentials that will help them enter or re-enter the work force. Nothing is equal between community colleges and universities, even if the budget reductions seem to be. Community colleges are funded at one-quarter the level of universities, and students are paying the price.

Community college enrollment and expenses are growing, yet our budgets are being cut to provide more funds for state universities at a time when they've been asked to curb their growth. Our students face closed-out courses, fewer programs, higher tuition costs and no financial aid.

If community colleges lose $129 million in funds, we would have to turn away more than 30,000 students in the next two years, keeping them unemployed, and put nearly 1,250 instructors and counselors on the unemployment line as well. And this helps the economy?

If the Senate really wants to support education and keep economic recovery on the fast track, it needs to provide enough funds for community colleges to do the work they do best: getting people back in the work force. That means keeping cuts to 10 percent or less, fully funding enrollment growth and protecting the scholarship funds provided by the Education Lottery.

Community college students are committed to getting back into the work force. They need budget commitments, not cuts, to help them do that.

Benita Budd is president of the N.C. Community College Faculty Association.

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