For community colleges in Texas, any economic news seems to be bad news.
When the economy is booming, fewer students enroll and the state gives the colleges less money. When times are tough, enrollment goes up but the state has less money to give.
The cycle is playing out again this year, with funding for the state's 50 community college systems one of few areas pegged for cuts despite the state's robust bank accounts. Hoping to dislodge lawmakers from their usual pattern, the schools are making a last-ditch effort to boost their funding as the House and Senate hash out a final two-year state spending plan.
“I know we can do this, and we must,” said J.P. McMillen, president of Grayson College in Denison. “Otherwise, we won't continue to have the number one status as the best place to do business.”
Community colleges collectively now get about $900 million a year from the state, accounting for less than a quarter of their budgets, which are mostly funded by tuition and property taxes. That amount would drop by about $18 million under the budget passed by the House this session, and the Senate budget would cut almost $20 million.
“It’s just one of those years that the stars aligned more for general higher education than community colleges,” said state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who has three community colleges in her district.
Falling enrollment is the biggest reason, lawmakers say. As the unemployment rate dips, fewer people have the time or feel a need to seek job training. Enrollment in Texas community colleges climbed to more than 700,000 for the first time in 2010. But it has since dipped back below that mark, falling to 694,881 in fall 2014.
But the colleges say it shouldn’t be that simple. Enrollment peaked at 732,681 in 2011, when the state was suffering from its biggest budget shortfall in years. The colleges didn't get much more money when the enrollment numbers were going up, they say, so they shouldn't get less with a slight decline now.
According to the Texas Association of Community Colleges, per-student funding dropped from $2,134 in the 2010-11 budget to $1,669 in 2012-13. Under the Senate’s current budget, funding would go up to $1,795 per student – far below the 2010-11 levels.
And with the price of oil falling, some school leaders say they are worried that enrollment will soon spike again. Plus, state and national leaders are touting community colleges as an inexpensive way to train the next generation’s workforce, school presidents say.
To make their case, the community college association has dispatched many school presidents to meet with lawmakers in recent days.
“It is important that we tell legislators to make sure community colleges are funded at the level needed to meet the demand that the state is going to have in the next two to four years,” said Steven Johnson, the association's vice president of public affairs.
McMillen said his school is still feeling the pain of 2011. Grayson College eliminated its popular basketball program, and many employees have missed out on raises. Basketball probably won’t be coming back, he said, but the school would like to expand its manufacturing and health care training.
“My local businesses and industries need those skills,” he said.
The association is asking for another $130 million in the two-year budget – a request that might be difficult to fulfill this late in the process. But some lawmakers have expressed support for increasing the amount.
“Community college funding is one of many big ticket priorities that are still being discussed in the negotiations,” said state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, a member of the conference committee where those budget negotiations are taking place.
Ashby said some of his colleagues have asked for more dollars for the schools. It’s unclear whether the committee will find it.
“I made a commitment to the members of the House to work to find additional dollars for our community colleges, and I have not forgotten that commitment during our budget negotiations,” he said on Monday.
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Community Colleges is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.