Texas legislators will evaluate the state’s community college funding model beginning this year. Currently, Texas has sixty-three community colleges, which enroll nearly half of the state’s post-secondary students. The current funding model is 50 years old.
Like Michigan, Texas relies heavily on local property taxes, tuition revenues and state appropriations for community college funding. In the past decade, most Texas counties lost population. Urban areas have attracted much of Texas’s population growth.
That created large disparities in community college funding. Local property taxes provide between 2% and 70% of a school’s annual funding. That disparity allows urban community colleges to have the newest buildings, the latest equipment, and the most in-demand programs. Rural community colleges do not receive that much funding. Consequently, they cannot draw students into their classrooms.
Worse, rural community colleges cannot draw employers to the area because the local workforce lacks high-demand skills. Although community colleges should function as economic engines, the funding mismatch means that rural areas typically lose opportunities to draw new employers to an area.
That is a lesson worth examining. Employers will not place a facility in areas where the community places no priority on workforce development. Texas acknowledges its funding model places its rural community colleges in a tough spot. The current community college funding model heavily rewards local growth. But local growth happens only with extensive investment in workforce development. Absent local growth, Texas’s community college funding model starves rural institutions.
Texas recognizes that disinvestment in career and technical education chases away both people and employers. It stagnates academic programs, so underfunded community colleges cannot create workers with in-demand skills. Instead, rural community colleges train workers for low-wage, low-skill jobs. This produces two outcomes: institutionalized poverty in the surrounding communities, and incentive for the population to move toward better opportunities.
Community college funding must focus on workforce improvement
But what happens when this disinvestment in career and technical education takes place in a well-funded urban area? As it turns out, this strategy produces the same result no matter where it plays out. Failure to build the occupational and technical skills of the workforce decreases the attractiveness of an area to employers. If an area has no modernized mechanism for skill acquisition, why would an employer locate there?
Disinvestment in education on the part of community college trustees leads to disinvestment by employers who cannot find the workers they need to operate their businesses. The employers then have two choices: remain in an area with no workforce improvement capabilities or move to an area that has invested meaningfully in workforce improvement.
Disinvestment is what happens when community college trustees place their own interests above those of the community that elected them. When Trustees are more invested in shielding their own tax bills from trivial rate increases than in building a viable workforce, the entire community suffers. Worse are Trustees who value “retail outlots” over meaningful workforce improvement strategies. The impact goes beyond losing key economic development. This approach programs an area to fail repeatedly until there is little left that is of value to employers.
Washtenaw Community College needs Trustees committed to investing in the long-term future of Washtenaw County. That means looking past their own property tax obligations and their desire to exploit community college financial resources to develop coherent strategies that support sustained economic growth.
That appears to be too tall an order for the current collection of Trustees. It really is time for a change.
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk, via Flickr