By Jill Scofield
As America’s community colleges become increasingly adept at doing more with less in the face of ever-shrinking state budgets, the need to adopt innovative approaches to everyday activities is more important than ever. As the largest system of higher education in the nation, with some of the most complicated budget challenges, California Community Colleges have the opportunity to demonstrate what a successful model of sustainable funding might look like in the new economy, where state funding is a shrinking resource.
This very thinking served as the inspiration behind a unique partnership. Last year, the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation partnered with the Foundation for California Community Colleges to take a step toward gaining better insight about the revenue-generating capacity of and cost-savings opportunities for the entire California Community College system. The study was conducted over the course of several months and spanned the entire state.
Both the need for and timing of this study were underscored by the ongoing economic crisis. For California Community Colleges, which educate nearly one out of six college students in the U.S., budget cuts have combined with unprecedented demand to create an unprecedented funding crisis. In the 2009–10 academic year, the system sustained an 8 percent cut to its overall budget, translating to more than 200,000 unfunded students attending a community college.
According to William Moses of the Kresge Foundation, addressing the capacity of the California Community Colleges is a critical first step in helping public higher education across the nation continue to meet its mission. “We can’t expect improvements in American college achievement levels if we don’t address the challenges facing California—and the California Community Colleges are a big part of the equation.”
A Snapshot of the System
The study, which wrapped up in early summer 2010 and involved phone interviews and surveys of nearly 300 California Community College leaders, foundation executive directors, corporate and industry partners, and major funders, is intended to be used as a resource to develop and act on specific recommendations that will help community colleges expand their revenue-generating capacity.
Throughout the study, participants were asked to share thoughts and feedback about the existing capacity of their colleges to raise outside support and the potential for growth in the future, including what tools and resources would be needed.
For those involved in community college advancement, the findings may validate previously held assumptions. In a nutshell, the findings suggest that community colleges are well-positioned to have a dramatic impact on society and the economy, but increased capacity is needed to explore outside resources to reach this potential. Further, there is growing agreement on the need to generate resources, but not yet widespread consensus on how to do so.
According to Foundation for California Community Colleges President Paul Lanning, however, the importance of the study isn’t just in the data collected, but in the power behind the numbers.
“This study allowed us for the first time to truly assess the state of our system in terms of its ability to both generate revenue currently, and opportunities for future growth and development,” he notes. “What is perhaps most impressive about it is that our system is now armed with information gathered by a third party, which gives the California Community Colleges a greater level of credibility as we tell the story of why it is so critical that we diversify revenue streams.”
While there is a clear need for California Community Colleges to diversify revenue sources, many colleges currently have untapped capacity or simply lack fundamental tools and resources. Challenges that colleges face include a limited number of staff focused on increasing or diversifying revenue for the college and an advancement strategy that is not aligned with the college’s overall mission, among others.
On the other hand, California Community College foundations seem to benefit from the increasing involvement and support of college and district leadership. When asked about the involvement level of their presidents or chancellors, 60 percent of foundation leaders noted that their president/chancellor is very involved and supportive in advancement efforts. Only 4 percent of the respondents noted that the president/chancellor is not involved or supportive in any way.
A Step in the Right Direction
The findings also present a number of opportunities for future action, among them the ability to showcase the success stories from colleges throughout the system. Participants indicated that knowing some of the successes of other like-situated colleges would be helpful to them in implementing their own innovative programs. In addition to the opportunity for a little well-timed show and tell, a more significant outcome of this research gathering could be getting the funds for a future phase of this effort.
"We already have funders from across the country who are eager to come together to discuss what measures might be taken to better support California Community Colleges in our efforts to both increase revenues and lower operating costs on a statewide level,” notes Lanning. “With the information we’ve gathered over the past several months, there is great potential for partnering with funders that want to make a positive difference in California’s higher education.”