Archive for Sunday, October 26, 2008

Community colleges competing for resources

WSU professor describes higher-education landscape in state as sprawling

October 26, 2008


Related document

Kansas Legislator Briefing Book 2008 ( .PDF )

For Deborah Gordon, the higher education market surrounding Wichita State University has become oversaturated.

Within a 50-mile radius, there are the traditional private, four-year schools such as Friends and Newman universities. The area also has the less traditional, working-student oriented schools, such as the University of Phoenix. Added to the mix are the state-supported community colleges in nearby Hutchinson, Cowley and Butler counties.

In all, Gordon, a tenured associate professor in WSU's women studies department, has counted 19 competitors in Wichita and the surrounding area. And, she believes all those schools - many attracting the same kind of students - can take away much-needed resources from students like hers, who have decided to attend four-year public universities.

"It all seems pretty chaotic, unplanned, unregulated. And it does seem like a certain kind of waste," Gordon said of what she calls the sprawling higher education system.

Gordon sees herself as being on the frontline of the issue as less money comes into the university and fewer classes are being offered. For her, it's a basic math problem. The state doesn't have the tax base to support all of its public colleges.

"Our students are going to be drawn out of the state and go elsewhere because we are not willing to make hard political decisions," Gordon said.

The state's system

The state funds six state universities, 19 community colleges, five technical schools or colleges, and one municipal university. Per capita, Kansas has more than doubled the number of community colleges compared with all its neighbors.

Today, the state spends more than $100 million a year on the community college system, less than a fifth of what it spends on its state universities. In 2007, 46,000 students were enrolled in the state's community colleges, which cost $460 million to run.

Sheila Frahm, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees, said if the state had to plan its higher education system from scratch, there probably would be fewer schools.

"But we can't start over. We have what we have, and we make the best offering for students with what is available," Frahm said. "Access is important."

Richard Hedges, a member of the Kansas Board of Regents, also points to community colleges' mantra of accessibility, which brings with it a duplication in state programs so students don't have to leave home.

"I think it's about accessibility, taking care of the community, being responsive to the community, and you can't do that halfway across the state," said Hedges, who was president of Fort Scott Community College for 12 years.

The idea of consolidating the state's community colleges isn't something that's on "the front burner" for the board of regents, Hedges said.

In the past year, some major mergers have been made in the higher education system. Four state technical schools consolidated with community colleges or a university. But it's still too early to tell how much money has been saved, Frahm said.

Sharing resources

In 1999, the Kansas legislature passed the Higher Education Coordination Act. Among other changes, the legislation placed oversight of the community college system with the Kansas Board of Regents and made a commitment for the state to increase funding for community colleges, lessening the local tax burden.

This winter a report from the Legislative Division of Post Audit indicated that property tax relief hadn't happened.

The report identified several reasons for the failure:

¢ Budget shortfalls kept the legislature from fully funding its portion of the act.

¢ In the years shortly after the legislation passed, community colleges underestimated enrollment.

¢ Cost of funding the act was higher than anticipated.

¢ Ten community colleges didn't provide all the property tax relief they should have.

The report pointed out that statewide, local property taxes should have been reduced by about $30.3 million, but in reality they dropped by $25.2 million.

The audit found that some colleges had built up large cash reserves, some equaling as much as eight months worth of expenditures. Among them was Johnson County Community College, whose reserve grew from $13.8 million to $80.9 million since the act was passed.

The audit also looked at what some consider the poster child for redundancy in the state's higher education system: the two community colleges in Montgomery County.

Coffeyville Community College and Independence Community College are less than 20 miles apart. The report indicated that the two could work to eliminate duplicate programs, share teaching resources and develop programs to purchase joint utility services and software.

A local decision

No action followed the February audit. And while the report might have helped support the idea of merging technical schools and community colleges earlier this year, it wasn't the impetus for it, Frahm said.

Community colleges are likely to see changes that won't bring more money into the system. Hedges points to new competition with the emergence of for-profit universities throughout the state.

College enrollment is predicted to go up, a trend that follows rough economic times. Frahm said that like universities, community colleges are seeing their infrastructure fall apart.

Ultimately, consolidation of community colleges should be a local issue, Hedges said. Unlike universities, community colleges get a lot of their money from local property taxes. In 2006, 20 percent of community colleges' funding came from the state and 36 percent came from local sources.

"It's not really a decision someone is going to make outside the community," Frahm said.

But Gordon from WSU said if the state wants to build a strong university system, the current numbers aren't going to work.

"Kansas has to decide what it really wants because we can't have it all," she said. "It's not a big enough tax base. And it really underfunds the university."

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the University of Phoenix as a two-year institution.


KU_cynic 9 years, 4 months ago

Firsy, ditto to all the dishes against the women's studies professor. In tough times when students, parents, and the state need to consider the return on their investment in education dollars programs such as women's studies should be on the "front lines" in terms of cutbacks.As a KU professor myself, I feel that the exactly opposite wrong-headed priorities are being followed. This state actually spends too much on its top universities and not enough on K-12 and community colleges. One indication of that is KU's 35% non-graduation rate (and nearly a 20% attrition rate before sophomore year). I bet that KSU's numbers are about the same. Too many "not ready for prime time" students are funneled to KU and KSU instead of more cost-effective community colleges or junior colleges. For high-achieving students with the prerequisites for university success KU and KSU are great deals, in spite of higher than ever tuition. For marginal students, however, encouraging them to waste their time, their money, and taxpayers' money in a longshot at a university for which they are not prepared is terrible.Finally, CAIT48 -- I'd be sincerely interested in hearing more in detail about how you feel that KU despises non-traditional students.

Cait McKnelly 9 years, 5 months ago

When four year universities such as KU begin to cater to, attract and fulfill the needs and dreams of nontraditional students at the same cost as a community college then this woman might have a point. However KU despises nontraditional students and makes no effort to recruit or accommodate them, not to mention that tuition costs are considerably higher than even Johnson County CC, the highest priced community college in the state.State funding of universities needs to be overhauled so that tax dollars go to meet the needs of ALL students, not just the traditional "straight out of high school" student. If that happens universities just may have a chance to compete.

labmonkey 9 years, 5 months ago

When a biology, math, chemistry, or english professor is interviewed complaining about too much competition from community colleges, then I might consider that side of the argument. Comming from a women's studies professor, one can easily see why she is upset. What kind of job will a student with a women's studies degree get anyway? If one wants to cut expenses, fake degrees like that should be looked at. Universities require a disportionate amount of general studies courses where the intention is to keep students in school an extra semester or two and help pay all those fees which usually end up in the sports team's coffers anyway. Many times, community colleges are an excellent, cost effective way to take these classes. As the poster above me mentioned, community colleges are needed for non-traditional students who are trying to approve their lot in life. Also, the cost of going to one of Kansas's unitversities have sky-rocketed in the last 15 years. When I was choosing where to go in the mid-90's, KU, KSU, Pittstate, and ESU pretty much had the same in-state tuition and one could go there (in state) for around $1,000 per semester (tuition and fees). Since I graduated, the cost to in-state students has more than tripled at KU and KSU. One last thing....the women's studies professor should not be complaining about so many community colleges....where else where her students procure employment if they cannot teach at a community college?

calbears 9 years, 4 months ago

These comments actually confirm what Gordon said. They indicate academic parochialism that comes from being too isolated from mainstream American higher education, and that isolation is a result of the fact that Kansas universities are falling behind their counterparts in other mid-Western states to say nothing of the coasts. Women's Studies is a bonafide academic field, has been for years now, and exists at all major research universities. And anyone who thinks it's Women's Studies alone that is suffering and is a source of discontent, is wrong. Faculty morale on every university campus in Kansas is bad, precisely because faculty have experience at other universities outside the state and thus have something to compare. Kansas comes up short, and it's not good for our young people. Throwing out rhetoric about women's studies doesn't change the numbers on the graph that the author provides. Take a good hard look at how much Kansas spends on community colleges relative to Nebraska or Missouri. You'll see why even folding women's studies programs back into academic departments would not touch the funding deficiencies for universities in this state. Given the Kansas system, there is unsurprisingly general confusion in comments here about the difference between community colleges and universities. Academics do not train Ph.D.s to teach at community colleges. The Ph.D. is a research degree, and research isn't conducted at community colleges. Universities are centers of research and scholarship. Community colleges teach. Gordon didn't say don't have community colleges; she said the numbers don't add up. Which they don't. Maybe there should be fewer community colleges AND fewer universities, so that Kansas can actually compete with, um, Nebraska and maybe even someday such exotic systems as in Michigan or Illinois.WSU doesn't despise non-traditional students; I sincerely doubt KU does either. Since university budgets are tied to enrollments, Kansas has fairly low admissions standards to its public universities. In fact, I think Kansas was one of the last states to get rid of open admissions. The KU prof. is correct--many students belong in a community college, not at a univeristy, but that problem requires tightening university admissions. Kansans need to understand that what worked for the 19th and 20th centuries is no longer applicable.

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