US rural community colleges hit by economic upturn

Expert points to ill effects of ‘countercyclical’ enrolment

US rural community colleges face a battle to survive in the face of declining state funding and falling enrolment, an expert has warned.

J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, told Times Higher Education in a podcast interview that the “huge increase” in community college enrolment during the recession had ceased, leaving many institutions at risk of closure.

“If we know anything in our sector it’s that our enrolments are countercyclical to the economy,” Mr Brown said, pointing to demand from jobseekers seeking to improve their skills during downturns. 

“As the economy begins to turn around…we’re seeing a decline in enrolment,” he added.

This, coupled with recent cuts in state funding, would leave some institutions fighting for survival, he predicted. State and local funds allocated to community colleges “have been declining…for a number of years. Where a college may once have got 40 per cent of its support from the state, it may now be receiving 12 per cent.”

The pressure would be felt most acutely by small institutions, he argued.

“About two-thirds of our community colleges are based primarily in rural areas. These are very small colleges with 400 or 500 students,” Mr Brown said. “I’m worrying…about those institutions’ ability to survive in a student market that may be declining, as well as a market where we’d do well to stabilise public funding.”

His warning comes after a survey of state community college directors by the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa’s Education Policy Center found that although many expect “modest percentage increases in state appropriations” next year, declining enrolment would mean “less overall tuition income”.

The 2013 National Survey of Access and Finance Issues concludes that while “the worst of the budget cuts for all public education sectors may be over”, recovery to pre-recession levels is “a long way off”.

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