Clark: Community colleges feel the squeeze

TUPELO – Mississippi’s 15 community and junior colleges are feeling a particularly tight squeeze during the current economic climate, their state leader said Friday.
At a time when enrollment is exploding, funding has been cut significantly, said Eric Clark, executive director for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.
Clark, formerly Mississippi’s secretary of state, met with the Daily Journal editorial board after a speech to the Tupelo Kiwanis Club.
Community college enrollment during the spring semester of 2010 was up by 15.7 percent from the previous year, and summer enrollment increased by more than 29 percent statewide.
Yet the Legislature cut community college funding by $36 million for the current fiscal year that began July 1.
That represents a reduction of about 14 percent, although Gov. Haley Barbour has promised $9.8 million in stimulus money, which would bring the cut closer to 10.3 percent.
“It is really hard to squeeze a 16 percent enrollment increase and a budget cut of more than 10 percent into the same box,” Clark said.
Clark said the funding reduction has caused class sizes to rise, instructors to teach more classes and schools to use more adjunct instructors instead of hiring full-time faculty.
The average instructor will teach seven classes this year, Clark said.
Schools also have delayed maintenance and construction projects and reduced spending on discretionary items, such as traveling.
Although enrollment is growing, Clark said the additional tuition does not accommodate for funding cuts, noting that students’ tuition covers about 30 percent of their cost.
He said all 15 community and junior colleges can still handle further growth but won’t be able to do so forever.
“People who work with the state budget need to understand that at some point, we will get to a saturation point,” Clark said.
Clark cited a law passed by the state Legislature in 2007 that required the per-student amount of money appropriated for community colleges to fall midway in between per-student expenditures for K-12 districts and for the state’s regional universities – Mississippi Valley, Delta State, Mississippi University for Women and Alcorn State.
Clark said the Legislature began to make progress toward that requirement, but has since fallen well short.
For the 2008 fiscal year, regional universities received $7,352 per student, K-12 districts received $5,137 and community and junior colleges got $3,957. According to the law, that amount should be been $6,244 – and that was before the biggest enrollment spike.
Clark said that getting community colleges to midway point funding would require an additional $134 million.
“It would take several years to do that,” Clark said, “but there needs to be a commitment to make that goal a reality as quickly as it can be done.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal