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April 27, 2012 5:37 PM Paying for Community College

By Daniel Luzer

What is the future of community colleges? Who should pay for it? One community college president recently looked at the future of the institutions and told the American Association of Community Colleges that is was, essentially, time to embrace privatization.

This sentiment appears to be, while not actually popular, pretty widely accepted. But it’s still a pretty bad way to improve American education.

According to an article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed:

“My own college behaves much more like a private college these days than a public.” Stephen M. Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, told fellow community college leaders here Sunday that this statement was true of his institution and many others. And he’s not ashamed. When talking to elected officials, potential donors and others, “that’s a line I use all the time,” he said, in a session at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Curtis — and his fellow panelist, Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges — made clear that they wished that trends had unfolded in different ways. But they said it was time to get over it, and to recognize that community colleges must embrace ideas associated with privatization if they are to succeed in their various missions.
“We have no choice. The state funds are gone forever,” said Glasper. Arizona is ahead of most states in withdrawing state support, and Glasper has been making versions of this argument (with regard to Maricopa) for several years. But now the conversation is about community colleges generally, and it’s not just Glasper making the case.

Forever? Let’s put this in perspective. We’ve only had community colleges since after the Second World War. They used to be really cheap and, in many cases, free. With the latest push to get more Americans through college, and the Obama administration’s big rhetorical support for community colleges, now might be the perfect time to try to get the public money back into America’s accessible public education institutions. Free community college is probably the best way to ensure that college graduation becomes standard.

Curtis Glasper point out that in the last 30 years community colleges have come to receive less money from states and communities and more money from student tuition. In 1977, for instance, the community College of Philadelphia received 36 percent of its budget from the state, 35 percent from the city, and 30 percent from tuition. Today these numbers are 26, 15, and 58, respectively.

Glasper, however, recommends just embracing privatization since he “doesn’t see any meaningful rebound in state appropriations for another 7 to 10 years.” So he’s talking about offering online instruction and establishing for-profit learning centers to keep community colleges going.

This solution sure sounds “practical” but it represents giving up on accessible higher education. It will surely result in even fewer students completing college. That’s not okay.

Frankly, if you’re the head of a community college, one of your primary responsibilities is to keep your college really, really cheap for students. Don’t call it accepting reality if you’re just giving up on doing your job. Yea, it’s harder to security funding in this economy. So work harder.

State funding doesn’t recover naturally. Funding “rebounds” when citizens and community leaders demand it. Community colleges are public institutions. Go ahead and demand adequate funding.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer