With Big Budget Cuts At 4-Year Schools, Will Students Flock To Less Expensive Community Colleges?

Compton College is part of California's 115-campus community college system. (Courtesy Compton College)

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The recently approved 2020-21 state budget spared community colleges from the direct cuts imposed on the University of California and California State University systems. Together, those systems could see their budgets cuts by $1 billion.

But while the community colleges won't lose funding this year, they will still face cost-cutting measures down the line. Under the same plan approved for K-12 schools, community colleges can continue at their current spending levels — but repayments from the state to cover that spending will be deferred. (Here's a good guide to how that works from the website EdSource.)

Being able to continue spending provides a lifeline for community colleges. "I would rather have deferrals than having budget cuts because at least I know the money's going to come at some point," said Keith Curry, president of Compton College.

But deferred spending isn't a cure-all. Community college administrators are scrambling to figure out how to keep cash flowing to pay for employees and programs until state funds arrive. Campuses are not run by a central, statewide administration so, in this case, some colleges will be in a better position to weather the deferred payments.


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Curry said Compton College has a reserve fund amounting to 30% of its budget. Unlike some other community colleges, they won't have to rely on municipal bond debt to fill the gap.

"We've been really managing our reserve for the last couple years to ensure that when this time comes, we're ready," Curry said.

The goal is to protect services such as counseling and the campus food bank. Curry is trying to increase enrollment by getting the word out that his campus is protecting student services and is affordable. He said enrollment is up this summer and he hopes fall enrollment will be higher than last year's.

A LESS OPTIMISTIC PICTURE

At Cypress College, administrators' predictions aren't as rosy as Compton's.

"We are anticipating to be able to [match] our enrollment from the prior year," said Alexander Porter, vice president of administrative services at Cypress College. It'll be an achievement, he said, to keep that enrollment steady given how much COVID-19 has upended the economy and instruction.

Porter said he expects about 8% of state funding for his campus' budget to come later in the year. He said the college hasn't decided how to bridge that gap at the start of the fall semester, but he's confident the campus' requirement to have 5% of its budget in reserve will be enough.

A priority is to protect a program called the Student Equity and Achievement Program, which helps lower-income and non-white students with counseling and other support.

"We're very proud of the investments that we made there to increase our graduation rates and those success measures associated with getting to a four-year college," Porter said.

Stable enrollments lead to stable budgets as state funding follows students, and state and federal financial aid fills campus coffers. So Porter and Curry, along with administrators at other colleges, are busy trying to convince potential students that community college is an affordable higher education option and that, despite the economic crisis and online instruction, it's a good bet for people to reach their career goals.

Josue Menjivar graduated from Roybal High School in L.A. and plans to attend Pasadena City College. (Courtesy Josue Menjivar)

A STUDENT'S CHOICE

Josue Menjivar, who graduated this year from Roybal High School in Los Angeles, said he's put off his plans to enroll at a four-year university and will instead attend Pasadena City College in the fall.

"I want to [transfer] to Virginia Tech," he said. "I want to study architecture."

He said online instruction will challenge him to stay focused. So will raising money to pay for tuition and living expenses.

"I was thinking about applying for economic help... scholarships and stuff like that," Menijar said. But since the state is going through a tough economic time, he doesn't know how much Pasadena City College will be able to help him.

The college is taking steps to help students such as Menjivar, said PCC spokesman Alexander Boekelheide. He said the campus recently raised its reserves to 18% and is considering taking out a loan to make up for this years' deferred funding gap. Summer enrollment is up at PCC by more than 2,000 students.