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Community Colleges

Response to the Challenge

Preserving the institution and achieving its mission despite the new economic “normal”
University Business, May 2012

I brought my hard hat when I arrived in Terre Haute, Indiana, to begin my freshman year at Indiana State University nearly 50 years ago. I had worked for two years as a steelworker in Gary and the hard hat was a reminder of my roots—I am one of 10 children of parents of modest means—and of the hardy people who made a decent and honorable living operating blast furnaces that transformed molten iron. It also was a reminder of the great new journey I was embarking upon. I had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Gary and was moving from the factory to the academy—a world of books and lectures and research and ideas. The hard hat, sitting atop the dresser in my dorm room, was a symbol of the incredible power of learning to transform lives.

College certainly changed my life. Effective June 30, I will retire as chancellor of Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. It has been a privilege to serve since 2003 at Pima, and at the other stops on my 40-year educational journey, as a student, professor, and administrator. It is with this perspective that I write of a transformation in higher education that has occurred over the past half-decade. The scope of the transformation is driven by more than new economic realities, though they are a large part of it. The change is cultural as well, as society re-evaluates the public benefit of higher education. It will be the job of current and future leaders of the nation’s community colleges and universities to respond to the profound challenge presented by the “new normal” in ways that preserve their institutions and allow them to achieve their missions.

More students and less state aid resulted in the state’s per-student appropriation dropping from $1,140 in 2008 to $325 in 2011.

The Great Recession of 2008 brought wrenching change to colleges everywhere. Pima Community College was no exception. The Arizona legislature, facing multibillion-dollar budget deficits, cut funding to PCC by 30 percent in 2010 and by another 55 percent in 2011. We went from $23 million in appropriations to $7 million. Our enrollment skyrocketed, as it usually does during times of economic turbulence. We experienced double-digit enrollment growth from 2008-2010, adding more than 6,000 students—the equivalent of a new campus. More students and less state aid resulted in the state’s per-student appropriation dropping from $1,140 in 2008 to $325 in 2011. Moreover, revenue from property taxes flattened, as the real estate market cratered and new construction dried up.

Even the most astute economic observers were caught by surprise when global financial institutions nearly imploded. However, we anticipated the overheating of Arizona’s housing market by about 12 months, which gave us a window to soften the effects of the bubble’s burst.

We had chosen not to fill staff and administrative positions left vacant by attrition. When the recession hit, we eliminated those jobs—7 percent of staff positions and 14 percent of administrators. PCC instituted a modified staff hiring freeze, filling only those positions critical to maintaining safety, security, and stewardship at the college. We stopped giving pay raises to employees. We suspended faculty sabbaticals and international travel, limited administrative travel, renegotiated contracts, intensified collections, made infrastructure improvements to reduce costs, swept uncommitted, unspent balances from general funds, and ended subsidies to programs that could not pay for themselves.

By taking these steps, we have been able to hold instruction harmless while avoiding layoffs that have plagued other public institutions.

Operating Realities

Unfortunately, things will not return to “normal.” The halcyon days of the mid-2000s are over. In describing Pima Community College’s situation to employees before the start of the fall 2011 semester, I said, “There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. … [The] smart thing to do is to understand that this is our new reality, not a temporary emergency.”

As foreclosures mount and real estate values continue to be depressed, property tax revenues—our primary source of funding—will likely remain anemic even as other sectors of the economy rebound. Far more ominous is that Arizona’s state lawmakers have, for more than a decade, reduced investment in public higher education. The three state’s universities have sustained massive cuts. So has PCC, in good times as well as bad. In 1998, state appropriations accounted for 19.2 percent of PCC’s operating budget. In 2012, it was 3 percent. It is unlikely that this trend will reverse.

Nor can we look to Washington, D.C. for relief. The federal government is caught in budget-cutting, deficit-reduction fervor that makes significant national initiatives aimed to help community colleges unlikely. In summer 2009, the Obama administration proposed the American Graduation Initiative, a $14 billion aid package to community colleges. By March 2010, it had been pared to $2 billion. President Obama’s current $8 billion proposal to enhance community college workforce training seems destined to be a victim of election year politics even as recent changes in Pell Grants, particularly the new rule tying eligibility to having a high school credential, make it harder for students of modest means to meet their educational goals.

Underlying the cuts seems to be a shift in culture, a change in the tenor of the public conversation regarding higher learning. Of course, some of the talk is mere political theater, such as characterizing as “snobs” those who think everyone could benefit from some postsecondary education. But the trend seems to be that education is fair game when attempting to advance political agendas for short-term, tactical gain.

Now, I am not so naïve or nostalgic to believe that the good old days were free of hard dealing in education. But underneath the Realpolitik was a core belief that having people attending college is a public good. In statehouses, in some quarters of the nation’s capital and elsewhere, that fundamental proposition is being assailed.

Against this stark backdrop stand PCC and the nation’s 1,100 community colleges. We all are trying to be valuable economic and educational resources for the communities we serve. No community college can succeed, however, unless its leaders recognize that maintaining in a constant state of emergency is untenable. An institution can run on adrenaline no more than an individual can.

The trend seems to be that education is fair game when attempting to advance political agendas for short-term, tactical gain.

In talking to PCC employees in August, I acknowledged that “people here are stretched and stressed” from having to do much more with a lot less for so long. That has to change. Faculty and staff must again begin receiving pay raises, and PCC is building a FY 2013 budget that contains a 3.5 percent pay raise, the first in four years. Professional development must be enhanced. PCC’s planning process for 2013-2015 contains substantive discussions regarding the best ways to nurture employees—our most important asset—so that they remain healthy, content, and productive.

As senior administrators, we must improve our institutions’ ability to seek out and secure revenue streams to serve as alternatives to government funding. We must master new skills, much like the dislocated workers who have come to PCC to improve their marketability in a fiercely competitive workplace. Grants cannot substitute for operating-fund revenue, but can enhance services. PCC has improved its ability to secure and oversee federal grants by creating a One Stop center that has consolidated and streamlined grants-related operations. PCC obtained Data Universal Numbering System (better known as DUNS) numbers for each of the college’s six campuses, which multiplied its ability to pursue grant opportunities. Community colleges also have to be smarter in their relations with other government entities. At the state level, that means hiring a lobbyist. State legislators will not be swayed by the eloquence of your arguments or the incontrovertibility of your data. Lobbyists understand the political realities faced by individual lawmakers and have an overview of the dynamics at play in the legislative process. It is also important to forge new partnerships and connections with other government and community groups, but that enthusiasm should be tempered by the realization that everyone is seeking the same scarce resources.

By the way, I lost the hard hat sometime after receiving my doctorate in Economics from Iowa State University. It would have come in handy at several junctures in my career as a community college executive administrator and CEO. Given the fundamentally new landscape they must traverse, it is increasingly clear that current and aspiring community college leaders might want to invest in one.

Roy Flores is chancellor of Pima Community College (Ariz.).