A new report from a faculty think tank warns of an impending capacity crisis at community colleges, and Oklahoma college officials say they're already seeing those effects.
The report, called “Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who's not going to (community) college?” was released last week by the Center for the Future of Higher Education.
In the report, Gary Rhodes, the center's director and the document's author, decries a decline in public funding for community colleges, which the report says has led to “students standing in real and virtual lines,” seeking an education only to be turned away by overcrowded, underfunded schools.
The report also condemns what it characterizes as an overreliance on technology and cost-cutting to make up for lost revenue. Community colleges are already investing heavily in online instruction and distance learning, but are still seeing demand outstrip their ability to provide services, the report says.
“Community colleges, which have historically been Open Door colleges, are now closing their doors, denying access,” the report says. “The problem is insufficient public investment in these colleges, not their failure to reduce spending and increase productivity.”
The Oklahoma System of Higher Education has seen its budget slashed 9.4 percent over the past four years.
Those funding cuts, coupled with record enrollment growth and rising mandatory expenses like insurance premiums and utilities costs, have put community colleges in a difficult financial position, said Gary Davidson, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges.
“It's putting a lot of pressure on our college and universities — in particular, community colleges,” Davidson said.
Community colleges have taken on a significant role in the national higher education conversation in recent months. In February, President Barack Obama outlined his proposed Community College to Career Program on Monday during a speech at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.
The fund, included in Obama's budget proposal for 2013, is designed to support community college programs that train students in areas of job growth, eventually connecting highly skilled trainees with well-paying jobs.
Officials have said the plan would help to train 2 million Americans to work in growth fields such as cyber security and IT.
On the state level, Gov. Mary Fallin has called on Oklahoma colleges and universities to ramp up the number of degrees they issue. At a town-hall meeting at Oklahoma State University in August, Fallin said the state's future prosperity depends on its ability to produce a highly skilled workforce. A vital component of that effort is improving the state's degree-completion record, she said.
Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, has said community colleges will play a critical role in the state's efforts to produce those graduates.
But a lack of funding undermines those efforts, Davidson said. Even in the face of rising costs and shrinking revenues, community colleges are working to expand their offerings in areas of industry demand. But, he said, colleges are unable to offer enough classes during peak times of day.
That's because schools are increasingly using part-time adjunct faculty members to teach courses. Those faculty members tend to be a high-quality, low-cost answer to increasing student demand, he said — but they aren't a perfect solution.
Most students are interested in taking courses in the morning and afternoon, Davidson said. It's difficult to find qualified adjunct faculty to teach classes at those times, he said, because most of the likely candidates hold full-time jobs and are at work during the day. That problem is compounded in rural areas, where the pool of candidates is smaller to begin with, he said.
That pressure is already causing some schools to turn away applicants. Joy McDaniel, president of Murray State College in Tishomingo, said the school rejects students each year due to a lack of space or available faculty.
The school has turned away students in its science, nursing, occupational therapy assistant, physical therapy assistant and gunsmithing programs, McDaniel said. The school sees hundreds of applicants for a limited number of slots in those programs, she said. Even before they apply for those programs, those students must complete prerequisite courses, meaning those courses tend to fill up within the first few days of enrollment.
Another problem, Davidson said, is the general condition of campus buildings. Those facilities were mostly built in the 1960s and '70s, he said, and they require a good deal of upkeep. But colleges haven't been able to keep up with routine maintenance, he said, meaning minor repairs turn into larger problems.
“There isn't any money to pay for it,” he said.
For example, in 2010, air conditioning units went out in two campus buildings at Rose State College, said Ben Fenwick, a spokesman for the college.
The buildings weren't designed to operate without air conditioning, he said, and windows couldn't be opened. So the school was left to pay for expensive repairs in a year when it was scrambling to absorb budget cuts.
“These things have to be fixed,” Fenwick said. “And when you put off maintenance, it makes things like this more likely.”