Community Colleges: 'Can't Keep Pulling Rabbits Out Of Hats'
The ongoing budget impasse has been particularly difficult for Illinois' institutions of higher education, which have received a mere fraction of their usual state funds. Community colleges depend on the state to supply 30 percent of their overall budget, but that formula has evaporated over the past two years.
John Avendano is the president of Kankakee Community College, but he's also president of the Presidents Council — the group made up of all Illinois community college presidents. He spoke with our Education Desk reporter about the special challenges these schools face.
But they start by talking about KCC's renewable energy training center — an unfinished project, frozen by the impasse.
Avendano: The building is right in front of our campus. It has been fenced off because we received notification from the governor’s office to cease all projects. The monies had already been allocated; we even called the governor’s office to say, “Is it okay to start this project?” and they said yes. We started the project, we have all the foundation down, we have the underground utilities in, and then we received a cease notice. And that was in 2015. It’s been sitting like that ever since.
We had steel that had been fabricated for the facility that is in storage, that we are paying a monthly fee so that it doesn’t get rusted and no longer usable. The cost of that project is only going to continue to escalate. And it’s just a mess.
DR: Remind people how community colleges are funded. There’s three pots of money that you get, right?
Avendano: Exactly. So when community colleges were first established a little over 50 years ago now, they were established to be funded from three different primary sources: One was from local tax dollars, two was from state appropriations for higher education, and then three, through student tuition dollars. Theoretically and practically, they were established to be funded a third from each of those sources.
DR: So if state appropriation is one-third of it, and we are in Illinois, how’s that working out for you right now?
Avendano: The last couple of years, through the lack of a state budget, the state really hasn’t been able to provide the level of funding that higher education and specifically community colleges need, you know. So it’s like a three-legged stool. When one of those legs is missing, the other two have to compensate for that. So the cost has been passed on to the student.
DR: Okay, so when was the last time you got 30 percent of your operating budget from the state?
Avendano: Fiscal year 2015 was probably the last time we had a typical budget, if you will, even though it had been reduced from the previous year by the state. The following year, FY ‘16, we received approximately 13 percent (of expected allotment) from the state. This current fiscal year, we have received what would be the equivalent of about 43 or 44 percent of what we’d normally get from the State of Illinois.
And with the budget impasse, we also don’t know how to plan for next year. Our fiscal year ends of June 30th; the new fiscal year starts on July 1st. It is hard to plan for the entire next year when we don’t know what we’ll be receiving from the state, if anything…. So the challenge for community colleges around the state of Illinois and specifically for us is the uncertainty of how to plan for the following year. We are required by law to have a budget submitted and have it be balanced so that becomes a nearly impossible task for us to do.
DR: So do you hire an accountant or a psychic?
Avendano: Unfortunately we don’t have any access to psychics and it’s probably not a good planning method from that perspective. Although I know all of my colleagues wish they had a crystal ball, including myself.
You know, what many schools have done is not plan on having any money from the state, and so as a result of that, they’ve had to cut services and cut programs and cut back on hours and unfortunately, that’s against the mission of community colleges, which is providing quality affordable access to higher education and to programs.
DR: The other two legs of that stool are student tuition and local property taxes. A popular campaign going through the legislature is to freeze property taxes. How would that affect your situation?
Avendano: Well, again, when you have a three-legged stool and one of those is gone and you put a limit on the other one, it becomes even more of a challenge to be able to deliver everything that you can do. What most of the schools have done, especially the last couple of years, is reduce the cost. So already a number of positions have been vacated or reduced, there’s been elimination of programs and services to try to provide a balanced budget.
DR: You mentioned the mission of community colleges. Before I took this job, I think that I perceived community colleges to be a place where you could go do your first two years of college, if you were headed to a university. And what I’ve come to learn is — that’s one service that community colleges provide, but another service is that they offer courses that the university does not offer. There’s certain things that only a community college provides. Adult education services, things like that.
Avendano: So yeah, part of our mission is obviously offering the first two years of a baccalaureate degree…. Another big part — and quite honestly probably a bigger part of our mission — is to provide adult education for our respective communities. Adult education is those who are getting their GED or adult basic education or English as a second language, or basic literacy skills and math computation skills. So many of our residents in our communities depend on that.
DR: Because if you’re 29 years old, and you’ve been a high-school dropout for whatever reason, and you decide that you really need that credential, you can’t go to your local high school; you are too old. We don’t let grown people in to mingle with high school kids. Yet you can’t get into a university because you don’t have the high school credential. So a community college is the place you have to go, right?
Avendano: Absolutely. That is outside the mission of those other institutions, it’s the community college where they go to get that credential, the GED. And then beyond the adult education, we also offer applied science degrees… specifically areas such as manufacturing and health care, programs that train people to get right into the workforce. They don’t need the baccalaureate degree; they really just need a skill set that local employers need. We are the economic engines for our respective communities, because we provide the workforce for our local communities.
Another part of our mission people are sometimes unfamiliar with is: we also do corporate training and workforce training. So these are people who are already employed in our local respective communities, and their business provides this for them to get additional training to move up, to be promoted, to learn new skills….. These are the programs that are in jeopardy by not having a state budget.
DR: Okay. I know you like to say economic engine, but it almost sounds to me like you’re the beehive with the worker bees. You guys cultivate the worker bees who go out and pollinate and make everything else work.
Avendano: I think that’s a great way to put that, yes.
DR: So we’ve been talking big picture about community colleges as a whole. Give me three specific kinds of courses you have that aren’t at a four-year school.
Avendano: Welding, manufacturing, CAD (computer-assisted design), electrical technician, machine tool, millwright, heating ventilation and air conditioning, construction trades. Health care is a big one. Respiratory therapists, phlebotomists, nursing… those are the people who work in our healthcare facilities. It is rare that you go into any kind of healthcare facility and not encounter some kind of a community college graduate, whether they’re physical therapy assistants, occupational therapy assistants, respiratory therapists, the people who take the X-rays. So those are people who are trained at the local community college.
Some communities may need more adult ed, some may need more corporate training, it varies by respective community college. And we already do it at the most affordable way that you’re going to find in any sector of higher education. We’re critical to our respective communities.
DR: Do you happen to have a childcare center?
Avendano: We did. That was one of the casualties of the budget impasse…. We had to eliminate the college childcare center. We did that two years ago…. We were able to work out a deal with our local Head Start program to be able to offer childcare for our students. But we had eliminated the child care program here at the college.
DR: So you found a patch for that. But don’t you have to qualify for Head Start?
Avendano: They do. So not all of our students would end up qualifying, and it is limited in size. So we’re not able to fully meet the childcare needs in our community.
We had an NPR station here that we had to close, and it was the only station that provided — at the time — public radio for our local community. I found a patch for that as well, but it’s, uh, I can’t keep pulling rabbits out of the hat for these types of programs.
DR: Someone I interviewed two years ago said, “I can deal with anything but uncertainty. Just tell me how much I’m going to get, and I can plan for it, but the uncertainty is killing me.
Avendano: That’s exactly right and I think that’s probably the biggest challenge you’ll hear from all of my colleagues around the state is the uncertainty. And it’s during a time when we are planning for the following year. You know, there’s only so many programs you can cut because you have to start cutting people.
DR: So when you’re facing uncertainty, do you tend to err on the side of planning for the best case scenario? Or do you err on the side of planning for the worst case scenario? And also what do you see among your staff and students, because they’re dealing with this same uncertainty. Do you feel like they’re anticipating the worst or anticipating the best?
Avendano: Well, I think that more often than not, people plan on the worst. I think that you can’t plan for a best-case scenario when you know you’ve already seen some what you think are already worst-case scenarios. My concern is: What does that mean — not just for Kankakee Community College but what does that mean for the state as a whole?
DR: Okay MAP grants (Monetary Assistance Program) — how much have you lost and what is your current policy for students with MAP grants?
Avendano: We used to receive a million dollars in tuition revenue through MAP. In 2015-16, we received $165,000 through MAP. In 2016-17, we don’t have any MAP dollars yet. A lot of our students use their Pell money. Unfortunately the Pell money that was used for their tuition was not available for their books or transportation or child care, so as a result, they borrowed from Peter to pay Paul, which left them short in other areas for their educational expenses.
DR: Have you already decided how you’re handling MAP for this coming year?
Avendano: Well, because there’s still so much uncertainty with state (funding), we just couldn’t continue to take institutional dollars to help support the students. So we would be using their Pell dollars.