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Funding community colleges

Community colleges are relatively new institutions in the fabric of higher education. While the oldest community college, Joliet Junior College in Chicago, is over 100 years old, most of the community colleges in the country had their start in the 1960s and 70s. Designed to be colleges of opportunity, community colleges have always been accessible to the masses for higher education, focused on local educational needs, driven by developing a workforce, entry-ways to a bachelor’s degree through transfer programs and an integral part of the community.

How community colleges are funded varies across the country. In some states, community colleges are part of a statewide system funded through state dollars and tuition. In others, community colleges have taxing authority (like school districts) to drive local support in addition to state support and tuition. In New York State, community colleges are funded through support of the State, local county sponsors, and tuition and fees from the students. When this formula was developed, the model was to be one third of the cost of operations should come equally from the State, the county sponsors and tuition. This model is broken.

At Fulton-Montgomery Community College, students pay for about 50 percent of the college budget through tuition and fees (this is pretty common across the state). New York state makes up about 26 to 27 percent of the budget — driven by enrollment — and local support (sponsoring counties, charges to other counties and use of fund balance) makes up about 24 percent of the operating budget.

This too, seems to be a typical breakdown of the operating budgets across the state. Additionally, it should be pointed out that the sponsoring counties also contribute to community colleges in New York state through capital improvement funding. For FM, that contribution has been $250,000 from each county each year over the past several years in order to modernize college facilities and to address maintenance issues.

The presidents of the community colleges across the state have recognized that this funding model is no longer working and will be worse in the future. State operated campuses (like SUNY Albany, SUNY Cobleskill, etc.) receive state support for their operations that is independent of enrollment.

The presidents of community colleges are advocating for a based state aid that is not enrollment driven and supports the numerous activities required to assist students, provide the high-cost programs that prepare students for work in healthcare and high-tech industries and participate in the community activities that are expected of modern community colleges.

Local sponsoring counties have numerous stresses on their budgets from state mandates. While they recognize the importance on the community colleges in their region, providing additional funding may be difficult. We truly appreciate the funding provided by our counties. By providing funding from the state as a flat-rate for each community college in the state budget, institutions could better plan for their operations, anticipate the funding that they will receive and advocate for support in a clear and informed manner.

Community colleges leaders are honored to serve their communities. Every community college president I know works to develop a workforce for local employers, works to bring the arts to the region, works to provide high quality transfer programs into bachelor degrees and takes a leadership role in developing their communities. These efforts are worthy of a new model of funding that provides consistent state support.

Dustin Swanger, Ed.D., is president of Fulton-Montgomery Community College