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Economic and Demographic Challenges Facing Community and Technical Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Economic and Demographic Challenges Facing Community and Technical Colleges
As the cost of higher education increases and the amount of available funding falls, community colleges are forced to increase tuition fees to make up the shortage. If states want their community colleges to remain affordable, accessible centers of higher education and workforce development, they must offer alternative funding strategies that allow these institutions to meet their locally-driven mandates.
As local providers of workforce training and higher education, the role of community colleges is set to grow as student populations become increasingly non-traditional. But given the credit-based funding model on which many of these institutions rely, community colleges are facing a future of decreased funding—just at the time when they need it most. In this interview, Kevin Drumm discusses the regional and statewide factors that are impacting community college enrollment and program delivery, and argues for a new state funding model that better reflects the changing nature of public higher education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few key trends that community college leaders need to be keeping an eye on?

Kevin Drumm (KD): This isn’t unique to community colleges, but the changing nature of work is going to be a challenging trend moving forward. Employees are looking for job candidates that can fulfill highly demanding roles. At the same time, automation is replacing a huge proportion of working-class jobs. We need to have an effective strategy for dealing with this social and economic shift, and for helping individuals retool to take on the highly digitized jobs that will be in demand.

Another challenge is the change in learning styles. Most current high school and K-8 students are learning in a highly digitized manner, whereas most colleges are used to analog teaching methods. This combination of highly digitized learning and a highly digitized workforce is not something for which higher education is well prepared.

Over the long term, the major question facing higher education will be about how digitization will impact the delivery of academic matter. If you look at the evolution of artificial intelligence and its impact on fields like healthcare, it’s become incredibly significant. AI can diagnose diseases with an amazing level of accuracy. What is that kind of automation going to do to higher education, where critical thinking is such a cornerstone of our work? How is it going to impact us directly?

Evo: What are a few critical challenges that community colleges are facing today?

KD: The critical challenge for us lies in figuring out how to stay true to our historic, student-centric mission while grappling with three major headwinds that are impacting enrollment: shrinking demographics, a booming economy, and the implementation of a new statewide scholarship program.

We’re in upstate New York, where we have a shrinking population and a fairly robust economy. Given these factors, it’s hard for community colleges to meet the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce. We just don’t have enough funding to deliver the programs we need to produce the graduates that our economy demands.

During recessions, enrollment tends to spike in community colleges. From a funding standpoint, this is a good thing; it offsets inevitable budgetary cuts from local and state governments. Right now, though, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. The economy is booming, and college enrollments across the nation are declining. Most community colleges are funded by the credit, so when enrollment drops, so does our funding. It’s a double whammy.

The other headwind facing New York community colleges is the rollout of the Excelsior Scholarship program, a “free tuition scholarship” which, to an extent, has eliminated the price-point advantage for SUNY and CUNY colleges and universities. While the program has helped to increase enrollment for baccalaureate colleges, it puts us at a significant disadvantage.

So, what does all this mean? Right now, it means that we have a booming economy and a growing demand for high tech workers, but we can’t afford to fund new programs or grow the programs we have to meet those demands. This is happening at enrollment-funded community colleges all across the country.

Some states have responded to this by shifting to a performance-based funding model, or a combined performance- and enrollment-based model. That’s a step in the right direction. We haven’t moved in this direction in New York yet, but it is proving to be successful in the states that have implemented it.

Evo: How must the funding model for public higher education evolve so that non-credit certificate programs that lead to middle-skill jobs receive the same kind of support as credit-based programs that lead to degrees?

KD: That’s a conversation we’ve been having for some time. Some states do provide funding for non-credit programming, but historically most state funding models expect non-credit programs to pay for themselves. That’s all fine and good until you consider that the highest demand is for expensive, workforce-oriented programs. Most of these certification programs require expensive teachers, expensive equipment and expensive labs. You can’t just put them in a traditional classroom with a traditional general education teacher.

Some of the more enlightened states are providing funding for non-credit workforce-oriented programs. Here, New York State hasn’t been consistent in providing this sort of funding. It does provide competitive grant funding in some budgets, but you don’t know whether that funding is going to be there from one year to the next. You’re not sure how much funding is going to be available, nor what the timeline for receiving that funding is going to be. If you’re a small community college and you don’t have a full-time grant writer, you’re not going to be in the running to receive it. Institutionalizing non-credit funding would be a wise public policy and economic move for New York and other states.

Evo: Over the past several years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of universities and private businesses start to build the kind of workforce development programming that we would traditionally consider to be more in the two-year realm. How are community and technical colleges being affected by this increase in workforce-directed programming launched by competitors?

KD: That is a highly localized dynamic. If you’re near a Google campus or university that offers training you might otherwise provide, of course it’s going to hurt you. We’re near some pretty major tech players here in upstate New York, but they aren’t doing much of their own workforce training. They look to us to provide it. We do lot of contract industry training.

What has hurt us is that, since the Great Recession, a lot of companies have cut back on their willingness to subsidize employees that want to take workforce training. Perhaps that will begin to turn around as the economy improves. Before the recession, we were doing an enormous amount of subsidized corporate training. We still provide corporate training to a good extent, but companies are no longer as willing to cover the cost of it.

Evo: How can community colleges make customized corporate training more enticing for potential corporate partners?

KD: At SUNY Broome, updating our facilities to have the equipment that meets today’s standards is key, because we should be training our students for today and for the futurenot on outdated equipment that left the lab or the stock floor years ago. We’re on one of the oldest campuses in New York. We were one of the original five or six technical institutes that sprang up immediately after World War II, so we have a lot of dated infrastructure. Again, though, unless you get a grant it’s very hard to keep up given the current funding model.

Evo: How can community colleges ensure that they’re evolving to remain relevant and top of mind for local communities and students who enroll?

KD: Boards of trustees are very important in helping community colleges fulfill our local mandates. Our missions are local, and about 40 percent of us receive county funding. That gives us even more incentive to serve our local community and its needs.

Staying relevant comes down to understanding the economic and social environment, and determining what the community needs from us in order to meet that environment. Many communities in upstate New York are trying to move beyond the 20th-century manufacturing economy that barely exists any longer. It’s important for us to help them transform into 21st-century economies.

In New York, we’re not so much trying to help diversify the economy as we are trying to help people and businesses take advantage of the diversity of the economy that we already have. For example, there are 200 farms in our region, but nobody has ever paid much attention to the billions of dollars’ worth of food shipped from those farms every day. How do we help the region take advantage of this agricultural opportunity? How do we help them capitalize on the farm-to-table movement, or the growth in brewing and distilling? Given the number of agricultural and technical colleges around the state, community colleges really haven’t gotten involved in those arenas, but there’s opportunity. The agricultural and technical colleges all offer four-year degrees, but we’re offering two-year courses, associate degrees and credentials. When we open our new building next week, we’ll have three food processing labs, which is something we’ve never had before.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about some of the challenges facing community and technical colleges?

KD: The one economic lever that community colleges tend to control is their tuition and fees. We’re at the mercy of state and regional grants for the bulk of our funding, but we can control our tuition.

Community colleges have a mandate to be affordable and accessible, but we’re facing a dilemma: How can we pay the bills in a shrinking enrollment environment, provide up-to-date programming, and maintain low tuition fees? How “accessible” do we need to be, when offering low tuition puts us at the risk of not having enough money in the bank to run a quality academic operation? As the cost of higher education continues to climb, that’s a real problem for community colleges.

In the face of 20 percent state budget cuts, a few of our smaller institutions have had to take fairly drastic measures. They’ve had to cut their expenses and lay people off, but they’ve still had to substantially raise tuition rates just to keep the lights on. Public policy makers need to pay attention to just how expensive they want their community colleges to be. Increased funding would go a long way towards improving affordability and access at community colleges, without having to compromise on quality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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