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The SUNY Community College System — Headed for Big Changes After 60 Years? February 2013

The SUNY Community College System — Headed for Big Changes After 60 Years?

By David Shaffer
David Shaffer

New York State’s community colleges may be headed for some significant changes — as leaders from President Obama on down to campus presidents stress the importance of using two-year schools to close the “skills gap” between the nation’s workforce and the new jobs offered by the innovation economy.

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David Shaffer is a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. His work at the Institute has focused on economic development, workforce development and higher education.

But the changes will not come easily. New York’s community college system was built in other times, for other purposes. You might even say it isn’t really a “system” at all; its funding and governance are based on a complex amalgam of the state, county governments and the city of New York. So there is no one fulcrum on which to leverage change.

Nevertheless, there is obvious ferment for new directions. SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, the Legislature, and the community colleges themselves are all asking questions and rethinking practices that haven’t been reviewed for years. These touch upon financing, educational mission, and, above all, workforce development.

In the early 1950s, when the administration of Gov. Thomas Dewey began knitting a number of locally established two-year institutions into the fabric of the then-new State University of New York, and creating others from scratch, the most commonly voiced purpose for the schools was to provide two-year degrees with which graduates could then transfer to four-year colleges. This would enable students to do the first two years of college at an inexpensive school in their home towns, while at the same time reducing the pressures of overcrowding on the four-year colleges. A two-year degree was also all that was needed to enter some professions, such as nursing.

There are now 30 of them around the state, enrolling more than half of SUNY’s 460,000 students. (This doesn’t count the seven in New York City, which were shifted from SUNY to the City University of New York some years ago.) Given the local roots of the community colleges, each one in New York is “sponsored” by one or more counties and each is governed by its own board comprised of local and state appointees. Courses and curriculum are developed and governed by each individual college’s faculty. Funding was originally envisioned as a matter of “thirds” — one-third coming from the state, one-third from students, one-third from local taxpayers.

This mixed, campus-by-campus governance model has helped keep the “community” in community colleges. But it has also made it difficult to move the colleges in new directions.

Consider workforce development. In the 1950s a high-school education was considered adequate preparation for a good job. But no more. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, says that today, “The majority of job openings for people with high school or less will be low-wage jobs and many of these will be part time or transitional jobs.”

He calculates that by 2018, “job openings that require at least some postsecondary education or training will make up 64 percent of all job openings and will include the majority of long term career jobs.” Yet of those, he added, only about one-third will require a four-year degree or better; the rest can be filled by entrants with two-year degrees or certificates.

That puts community colleges squarely in line to develop the workforce our economy will need. Their programs include two-year degrees in career-oriented fields ranging from computer networking to marketing, one-year certificates in fields like carpentry or commercial cooking, and specialized short courses to help local employers quickly train staff for some new process or equipment.

But in New York, community colleges aren’t organized into any kind of coordinated, statewide workforce development effort that would carefully match programs to future job openings. And they have been assigned only a minor role in the state’s use of federal training monies.

Consider, by contrast, North Carolina, which by statute designates its community college system as “the primary lead agency for delivering workforce development” — and which has enough of a “system” to adjust quickly when needed. There is a “common course library” across all 58 community college campuses, rather than a collection of individual local curricula. The North Carolina system recently adopted a major update of almost every career-focused program and major in that course library to meet changing workforce needs. It took less than two years for teams of faculty and employers from across the state to consolidate 77 curricula into 32, add 21 new majors, eliminate 16, and revise more than 50 others — in fields ranging from construction technology to geospatial mapping.

That kind of innovation gets noticed. Two recent surveys of state business climates — one by CNBC in 2012 and one by Forbes in 2011 — both ranked North Carolina third in the nation for workforce assets. New York State’s ranking, by stark contrast, was 49th and 34th, respectively. (The ratings are based on a number of criteria, including labor costs and overall education levels, but what CNBC called “the relative success of each state’s worker training programs in placing their participants in jobs” is an important factor.)

Governed on a campus-by-campus basis, New York’s “system” cannot have a common course library, and cannot remotely match the speed and scale of change demonstrated by North Carolina. But SUNY community college leaders are working on the workforce issue nonetheless.

In September of last year, SUNY and a consortium of its community colleges, led by Monroe Community College President Anne M. Kress, won a $14.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to “design, implement and deliver a strategic approach to job training and education for high-need industries.” The consortium doesn’t have the power to adopt a statewide workforce curriculum, but this is the first time on record that all 30 have agreed to collaborate in looking at their offerings.

That’s just one sign that change may be on the wing in New York. Other loose ends that have developed as the SUNY community college system has evolved are now also getting close attention.

Take that initial focus on academic courses transferring to a four-year college, for example. General degrees in liberal arts and sciences (as opposed to career-specific degrees) are still the most common type of two-year degree awarded by community colleges almost everywhere. But it appears that only about a third of SUNY community college students ever get a two-year degree (which is consistent with the national average). Fewer than 10,000 students a year now transfer from community colleges to four-year SUNY institutions, of whom more than half transfer without finishing their two-year degrees.

One issue is that as curricula and courses at both the community colleges and the four-years evolved and diverged over time, it has become ever harder for community college graduates to transfer their course credits up to the four-years. SUNY is now trying to address this situation by recognizing a SUNY associate’s degree as satisfying the general education requirements at all four-year campuses.

Meanwhile one of the initial reasons for the emphasis on transfer — to prevent overcrowding at four-year colleges by letting students start their work elsewhere — has faded in importance, as demographic changes have made it harder for the four-years to fill their seats. (See “Are Colleges in the Northeast Prepared for the New Demographic Reality?”)

As the issue of moving students up the pipeline to four-year colleges has faded in significance, community colleges have had to get involved down the pipeline, at the high school level. In the 1970s the community colleges became open-enrollment institutions, accepting any recent high school graduate. That, in turn, required massive expansion of remedial courses for students who had not been properly prepared in high school. As many as 60-70 percent of the entering students at some SUNY community colleges need remediation. SUNY is trying to address the problem at the high-school level with, among other things, a proposed new 11th grade “college readiness exam” that will warn secondary schools if their soon-to-be graduates aren’t getting properly prepared.

Finally, over time, the original financing model for the SUNY community colleges has developed some wide-open cracks — and that is getting the attention of the Legislature.

For sure, the model of “thirds” no longer applies. The SUNY community colleges’ operating budgets total about $1.8 billion this year (up 60 percent in 10 years). Higher costs and declining local shares have transferred more of the burden to students, who now pay 37 percent of the net operating costs of the SUNY community colleges, even after the financial aid they receive from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). State taxpayers do pay a third, if you add in the TAP money, but counties now pay only 30 percent — 20 percent from the counties that sponsor the colleges, and 10 percent via “chargebacks” to cover students attending community college outside their county.

These overall figures mask wild variations on an institution-by-institution basis. Columbia-Greene and Sullivan County community colleges spend a total of about $12,000 a year per full-time equivalent, for example, whereas places like Monroe, Mohawk Valley and Schenectady spend less than $8,000. Sponsoring counties’ own contributions to the costs range from $1,500 or less to as much as $5,000 per student. What they charge back to nonsponsoring counties for letting their residents attend ranges from about $900 to more than $3,500.

Local officials’ complaints about these differences are growing louder and have reached the Legislature, which last year ordered SUNY and CUNY to report on the chargebacks system. (The resultant report documented that the variations proceed from statute enacted by the Legislature itself.) We can assume that political ferment over community college finances will continue.

So here’s the upshot: The current governance structure for the SUNY community colleges doesn’t seem to be helping them meet their increasingly important role as part of a workforce development system — while the initial underpinnings of that structure, such as the academic transfer mission and shared state-local financing, are either receding in importance or becoming more difficult to maintain. The fact that all these issues are now getting attention from SUNY, the Legislature and the community colleges themselves suggests that change may well be in the offing.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.