Facing uncertainty, community colleges do everything they can to keep their students

The community college system, the largest of its kind in the nation, recently returned $600 million to its more than 4 million students. It also saved $300 million by borrowing additional funds from an organization that was about to run out of money, keeping students at its universities out of danger. And the system’s budget went from $3.3 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015, to $3.9 billion for the current fiscal year that ends June 30, 2018. Yet it’s up to Congress to determine whether the college system will receive the $10 billion it’s expected to be left with once the money from its savings are exhausted.

Congress has yet to do so, and sources of that funding haven’t been determined. As a result, about 180,000 of America’s 4 million community college students could have their most affordable way to get a higher education taken away — and a large number of those students would be students from low-income families.

So what happens next? Some educators want the money used in a way that will truly benefit community college students, while others will use any money Congress transfers back to them to continue to build up their administrative infrastructure. The president of a community college in Iowa wants to take his school up to 133,000 students. That’s a promise that the school can’t afford to keep. Meanwhile, the department in Utah that regulates community colleges — which is responsible for telling colleges to save money — also wants Congress to move millions of dollars the system has saved to prevent cuts. That means more of that $2.9 billion the school didn’t see over the last four years would go to meet that responsibility. “That’s money we could be using for teaching and researching about everything from student achievement to environmental stewardship,” he said.

There’s a third possibility: Congress could transfer the money back to the colleges, but make no new financial commitment to them. Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have expressed support for that strategy, but its outcome remains unclear. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest ranking House Democrat, recently co-sponsored the bill to transfer $1.3 billion from the savings the department has collected from its own student aid program to community colleges, which he said would “break even” with where the colleges were when the recession began.

At last month’s meetings of the House and Senate education committees, numerous Republicans said they were willing to work with the community college system, but only if it also made a commitment to saving the money again by March 1. That can’t happen before the March 31 deadline for Congress to appropriate the $10 billion that community colleges are expected to have left over at the end of the year.

That leaves administrators and lawmakers in a race against time. Even if it was possible to figure out a way to pay for new positions, no schools — right now — have staff members working 24/7. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, said most have run out of money to pay for assistants for those teachers. He plans to propose that Congress put no new money toward the college system this year, and instead asks Congress to give as much money as is available back to the community colleges. That would add up to $2.9 billion.

“We can’t have you,” he said. “We need you to be on the job.”

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