Community colleges go on campaign trail

4th April 2014 at 01:00
US sector seeks to fill coffers emptied by cuts - and UK could follow

Community colleges in the US have experienced a boom in student numbers since the financial crisis began in 2008, as people seek to gain new skills or retrain for different careers.

But despite the sector's burgeoning popularity, it is facing a financial crisis of its own, with severe funding cuts and strict rules on how much it can increase fees.

Amid fears that the quality of education is suffering, community colleges are now increasingly turning to business investment and philanthropy to make ends meet.

Paul Heaton, director of the Center for Community College Advancement at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told TES that community colleges had typically not had the same "robust" fundraising operations as four-year colleges. "Fundraising has not been part of the job description of community college presidents or administrators but that is slowly starting to change," he said.

"The smarter institutions are realising that they have a lot of value and are attractive to potential donors, and that they need to be more strategic about seeking out donations."

The subject of funding will be debated at the annual conference of the American Association of Community Colleges, which starts tomorrow in Washington DC.

A delegation from the UK's Association of Colleges is attending the event to see what it can learn. AoC international director John Mountford said that UK further education colleges could find themselves in a similar position to their US counterparts.

"I think that as funding drops we have got to look at ways to fill the gap," he said. "International work is becoming more prevalent among UK colleges but if I were a commercial director I would also start looking at other methods of fundraising, from alumni donations to developing business partnerships."

One largely untapped source of potential funds for US community colleges is the alumni base. Although four-year colleges in the country routinely appeal to their former students for donations, community colleges have shied away from the practice.

Some are playing on their community credentials to gain support from local businesses, primarily in the form of scholarships, while others are entering into larger partnerships with industry. Last month, engineering giant Siemens announced a $55.8 million (pound;33.5 million) grant to Michigan's Mott Community College. The money will give students access to the latest manufacturing software to help train them for the automotive industry.

"The nature of community colleges is to respond to the workforce need of their local community," Mr Heaton said. "Businesses come [to colleges] and say `we need these skills'. But now what's happening is community colleges are saying `OK, how can you help us do that?' That's something they have not traditionally done."

Community college enrolment in the US increased by 21 per cent between 2003 and 2011. In the 2011-12 academic year, 45 per cent of all undergraduate students were enrolled in two-year public colleges, amounting to about 8.3 million students. As a result, supporters of the sector argue that state legislators should realise the value of community college education and give it more financial backing.

Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, told TES that over the past decade community colleges had responded to calls to increase access and cut costs, but that this had been at the expense of quality.

"For example, there has been a greater reliance on part-time instructors and online instruction, and an increase in student-to-faculty ratios," he said. "As long as state governors continue to divest in public education, community colleges will suffer the most. We think it's very short-sighted.

"Community colleges have the infrastructure to provide programmes in the skilled technology areas that employers say they want. But as budgets are cut they find it more and more difficult to fund these. If states really cared about the skills crisis they would take a more nuanced view."

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