ERIC Review: The Impact of Financial Crises on Access and Support Services in Community Colleges

By Sheldon, Caroline Q. | Community College Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

ERIC Review: The Impact of Financial Crises on Access and Support Services in Community Colleges


Sheldon, Caroline Q., Community College Review


This review discusses the impact of fiscal contraction on community colleges. It explores how reduced state appropriations have adversely affected community college instruction and student support systems. It closes with the example of how fee increases in the 1990s lowered access to the California community college system and reduced transfers to the universities. The research shows that because instruction and student support services suffer when the budget is reduced, fiscal contraction can hamper the ability of community colleges to provide universal access.

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State revenue shortfalls, the result of the most recent economic recession, are prevalent throughout the nation. In order to cope with these shortfalls, many states are choosing to reduce spending in public programs and services, including higher education. After nearly a decade of abundant resources, many higher education institutions face a grave fiscal situation. In January 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 36 states were anticipating budget deficits in 2003, and many had also reduced their higher education budgets mid-year (Hebel, Schmidt, & Selingo, 2002). In 2003, the University of Nebraska responded to declining state support by slating some of its academic programs for elimination and releasing some tenured faculty (Fogg, 2003). The state of Virginia cut the operating budget of its community colleges by 8% in 2002 and is expected to cut an additional 10% this year (Larose, 2003). In California, the state's record budget deficit has resulted in cumulative cuts of nearly 10% to the nation's largest community college system (Hebel, 2003; Mills, 2003).

Given the cyclical nature of economies, periods of reduced funding for public higher education should be expected, but they are not inconsequential, particularly for community colleges. The effects of budget reductions in state funding--whether large or small--are more profound in community colleges than in four-year colleges and universities primarily because the community college revenue stream is more homogeneous and dependent on state revenues (de la Garza, 2000; Education Commission of the States, 2000). Additionally, the community college emphasis on teaching to the exclusion of research activities results in few, if any, alternative revenue sources available to offset the impact of reduced state appropriations (de la Garza, 2000; Hebel, 2003; Mills, 2003).

Currently, the problem of reduced state revenue for community colleges is compounded further by enrollment increases. Rooney (2002) reports record enrollment increases in community colleges across the nation as students struggle to find affordable higher education. He also reports that enrollment increases of between 4% and 9% for fall 2002 were common in some state community college systems. Decreased state revenues, coupled with increased demand for instruction, have left many community colleges under escalating pressure to resolve the problem of serving more students with fewer resources.

Today's convergence of reduced state appropriations and increased demand for community college instruction is threatening colleges' ability to adhere to their missions and purposes, and arguably the problem is greater than ever before. Given these circumstances, an examination of the impact of prior fiscal crises on the missions of universal access and student support services is particularly relevant. This article looks to the past to illustrate the impact of fiscal contraction on access to community college instruction and support services, and explores previous responses to budget reductions, in particular enrollment management practices. Finally, the article discusses the impact of fee increases in the early 1990s on the California community college system in order to illustrate potential detrimental effects of increasing the cost of attendance on the missions of access and transfer. …

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