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Community Colleges Ready to Aid Economic Recovery .: The State House News Service

Community Colleges Ready to Aid Economic Recovery

Budget Cuts Could Sever Important Workforce Link

JULY 22, 2020.....Making sure community colleges have enough resources to avoid deep budget cuts will be crucial to ensuring that Massachusetts can recover from the economic damage of the pandemic, campus leaders said Wednesday.

Virtually the entire higher education landscape faces financial strain for the upcoming academic year as a result of new safety spending to limit COVID-19 risks, shifts in enrollment, and shortfalls in state budgets.

During a virtual panel discussion Wednesday, Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger and Roxbury Community College President Valerie Roberson warned that the significant populations of low-income students and students of color on their campuses will face even greater strain if the colleges are forced to shift more costs onto them because of budget cuts.

"If we're going to look for economic development for the state -- and everybody tells me the community colleges are the backbone of workforce development, which we are -- if we're relying on our very poor students who are in the lowest two quintiles of income to pay for their education, the state is not going to get a workforce," Eddinger said during the Boston Globe's Op-Talks panel.

A late June analysis presented to the state Board of Higher Education estimated that community colleges could face a shortfall ranging from $27 million to $118 million in fiscal year 2021 based on changes in enrollment and state appropriations.

Three weeks into the new fiscal year, legislative leaders still have not outlined plans for an annual spending bill or how they will grapple with tax revenues falling billions of dollars below original expectations.

Such a large gap could prompt widespread spending cuts, and public higher education in Massachusetts draws 30 to 40 percent of its funding from the state. Tax increases and the use of reserve funds are also on the table.

Eddinger warned that the typical payment model has flipped over the past decade, from the state covering 70 percent of student costs and students paying the remaining 30 percent to the inverse.

The state's 15 community colleges still have not fully recovered from cuts in the wake of the Great Recession, she said, and some indications point to further trimmings of 10 to 15 percent.

"Our competition is health care, our competition is transportation, our competition is infrastructure," Eddinger said. "But at some point in time, you're going to need someone to work in health care, you're going to need someone to work in IT, you're going to need someone to work in these fields that are the backbone of economic development."

"You need to choose us now because two years from now, we're going to be stripped to the bone and there won't be a community college system to help," she continued.

Roberson also stressed that community colleges play an important role not just as centers of education and economic development, but as providers of social services. Many of the campuses in Massachusetts offer access to pantries for food-insecure students or connections to housing, child care and other types of aid.

She is "both afraid and optimistic" for the long-term outcome, she said, buoyed that a renewed reckoning with racist public policies will increase support for community colleges that serve largely nonwhite and low-income populations.

"One thing that has always been true is that we have the ability to increase individuals' incomes but also increase the economic health of the cities in which we exist," Roberson said. "Once people start to understand the value that we can have in getting people back to work and helping businesses to reshape in response to COVID, retrain individuals that work already, I think there's a huge potential for us to be funded differently."


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