Community colleges should be better funded


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If you haven't heard, the state Board of Regents is having a hard time coming up with funding for the three state universities.

On March 21, the Iowa House Appropriations Committee passed a proposed tuition freeze that would likely result in a cut in state education spending. The regents' budget is much lower than most have come to expect, and a $5 million deficit at the University of Northern Iowa is threatening the existence of dozens of programs.

What is also being neglected — and what has been for the last decade — is the community-college system. Over the last 10 years, state funding for community colleges had a net decline of nearly 21 percent at time when enrollment increased by more than 60 percent.

A report by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found some more troubling statistics. The report used 1990 as a benchmark because state funding for community colleges was relatively steady. It found that state funding covered 29.5 percent of community college revenues in 2011, compared with 48.8 percent in 1990.

Tuition and fees totaled 57.3 percent of community-college revenues in 2011, compared with 32.8 percent in 1990. Local tax revenues were 4.7 percent of community-college revenues in 2011, a decline from 8.2 percent, and 2.7 percent of community college revenues in 2011 came from federal grants.

"Despite the growing importance of community colleges to both Iowa students and the economy, the state is supporting it less," said Andrew Cannon, the author of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership report.

Full-time tuition at Kirkwood Community College has doubled since 2002 because of these funding changes, from $2,000 to $4,000 a year. This is not a promising sign for the future. Community colleges provide higher education for those without the financial means to attend an expensive college or state university.

"Iowa community-college students and their families are having to shoulder a far greater share of the cost of education," Cannon said. "In just 10 years, the difference is stark — about a full week's worth of pay for someone earning an average wage in Iowa."

Community colleges provide areas of study that larger schools cannot — manufacturing, construction, and other skilled trades. Transfer programs between community colleges and other schools allow those with a tight budget to complete general-education requirements without breaking the bank.

Many accommodate nontraditional students, such as single parents, adults deciding to attend college to broaden their backgrounds, or people who have to balance work and school. Community colleges take pride in their ability to be convenient for their students.

Some say that college isn't an absolute necessity, and they tend to make a convincing argument. There are workers who have a high-school education or less at such places as John Deere who have been there for years and make great money, although detractors would say that is because of unionization. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is famous — or infamous — in this regard for his "snob" comment on President Obama's plan to create the opportunity for everyone to go to college.

This belief is becoming less true as time passes. More businesses are looking for workers with higher-level skills as technology advances and globalization increases economic demand. If an associate's degree is the new high-school diploma — and community-college tuition remains inexpensive — then it should be encouraged by our elected officials and funded as such.

But that creates a problem. If the state government cannot carry its weight with the state universities, how can we expect it to fund community colleges as well? This reveals a problem that has been perpetuated for years, both by the government and the universities.

Government spending in other areas has outpaced spending for education, leaving schools strapped for funds. Our universities have demanded tuition increases for decades. With an inflation rate of nearly 500 percent since 1985, they have created a system that is unsustainable. And while they beg for more funding, they sit on millions to billions of dollars in endowment market value.

There needs to be massive reform in the government-education relationship and spending if we want to see funding increase for community colleges. A lot of state dollars are lost because of low retention rates. Regent universities must begin to invest their own money in their curriculum, staff, and facilities rather than reaching for taxpayer dollars at every turn. Until then, expect to see this trend continue.

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