With the possible exception of some high school graduates who can’t wait to put a few hundred miles between themselves and their hometowns, everyone loves community colleges. They are the Marine Corps of higher education — useful, efficient, no-nonsense, mission-oriented.
And yet community colleges struggle to maintain an appropriate level of support and enthusiasm from political leaders — or sometimes even from local citizens who have the highest stake in their success. Perhaps because they lack intercollegiate sports teams and the other accoutrements of universities, community colleges too easily slip from appropriators’ minds when budget time rolls around.
This confusion — loving local colleges while starving them of resources — is amply apparent this year.
In Oregon, where Clatsop Community College in Astoria is the primary post-secondary choice for Ilwaco and Naselle high school grads, lofty funding and program aspirations are crashing into a less-rosy reality. Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature is considering many initiatives for community colleges, but there is no telling whether these plans will come with adequate funding.
The Daily Astorian recently reported Clatsop Community College is planning for contingencies, including potential tuition increases, if state funding doesn’t come in significantly higher than what Gov. Kate Brown has proposed.
Brown’s proposed two-year budget recommends $543 million for community colleges, a $27 million cut from this cycle and the lowest funding level since the 2015-17 budget. A secondary proposal from Oregon’s governor calls for some meaningful help for colleges, but is contingent on legislators agreeing to $2 billion in additional taxes.
And while Oregon grapples with funding its community colleges at current levels, a separate plan is being floated to allow them to begin developing full-fledged bachelor’s degree programs. This would be a welcome avenue toward career advancement for many in Pacific and Clatsop counties, who otherwise find it difficult to balance jobs and families versus aspirations for four-year degrees.
In Washington state, the Spokesman-Review reported last week that lawmakers currently in session in Olympia are actively seeking ways to help defray the cost of college for low- to moderate-income students.
By next year, 70 percent of jobs in the state will require some type of post-secondary education, but in 2016, only 44 percent of workers in Washington had received at least an associate degree, according to a report cited by the Spokane newspaper.
The shift in the past decade of tuition costs from state to student has meant students of modest means must spend a greater percentage of their income on a degree and are less likely to enroll, the report said.
To address this need, legislators are working to provide more money to the existing Promise Scholarships program. Last year, 22,600 state students qualified for this financial aid but didn’t receive it, because funds ran out.
Gov. Jay Inslee is asking for $103.3 million “to ensure all students at or below 70 percent of the state’s median family income receive a scholarship,” the Spokesman-Review reported.
In the Washington House, a proposal would start ramping up free community and technical college for all low- to moderate-income students.
It is good to see leadership of the Pacific Northwest states grapple with how to support students and the community colleges upon which so many of them rely. It is less good to see such a scattergun approach, with too little sign of connections between goals and realistic long-term funding streams.
Speaking for our region’s rural areas, the importance of community colleges can’t be overstated. They are one of society’s best investments. They provide a path to higher education for many who might otherwise find it difficult to build on a high school diploma. In a world that requires computer, math and language competency, an associate’s degree can play a large role in personal success.
If our states truly care about bridging the urban-rural divide, a great place to start is guaranteeing appropriate levels of funding for community colleges and the students who attend them. This would help many more citizens than the largess showered on universities in the form of athletic coaches’ salaries and other frills.