The 'Silent Killer' of Minority Enrollments

The Michigan court cases are getting all the attention, but the bigger threat to campus diversity is state budget cuts, especially for community colleges

The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 20, 2003

In April, a few days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the two University of Michigan affirmative-action cases, the American Association of Community Colleges met in Dallas for its annual convention. The cases were the subject of a standing-room-only session, at which college leaders dissected the justices' questions and tried to determine how the rulings would affect their institutions.

"Not since the 1978 Bakke v. the Regents of the University of California case has there been a case so important to the cause of higher-education access," blared the conference program, raising an alarm over the blow that the court might deal to race-conscious admissions plans.

Warnings about the potentially dire consequences of the cases have been sounded at dozens of academic lectures, conferences, and pro-affirmative-action rallies in recent months.

But lost amid the hubbub, say some higher-education leaders, is a far more serious threat to minority students seeking access to college: state budget cuts.

"It's the silent killer," says Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

A study by the Century Foundation estimates that if the nation's 146 most selective colleges abandoned affirmative action and looked only at grades and test scores, about 5,000 fewer black and Hispanic students would make the cut each year. But next year, officials estimate that at least 20,000 black and Hispanic students will be shut out of California's 108 community colleges alone because of cuts in state spending.

Nearly half of the nation's 2.95 million black and Hispanic college students attend community colleges. Many other minority students attend less selective state colleges or historically black institutions. Higher-education leaders say that deep cuts in state appropriations for those institutions -- coupled with the failure of federal student aid to keep up with tuition increases -- will do more to undermine minority access than will any other factor in recent history.

California colleges are bracing for a 5.6-percent dip in their state appropriations, a cut that isn't as large as those in some other states. Two-year college budgets in Maryland could be slashed by as much as 25 percent. Texas community colleges could see up to a 12-percent reduction in their budgets.

Minority students who don't get into selective institutions still have other options, says Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit research group. "Nobody didn't go to college because they didn't get into Berkeley," he says. But, he asks, "if budget cuts are closing the doors of community colleges to some students, a large portion of which will likely be minority students, where are they going to go?"

Cuts in Programs

Community colleges have long prided themselves on taking in all of the students who come through their doors. Now, however, administrators across the country complain that with state budget cuts continuing, they can't offer enough courses to meet growing demand. The applicants left out in the cold tend to be low-income students, many of them members of minority groups, who have trouble pulling together tuition until the last moment, and who are often unfamiliar with navigating the financial-aid bureaucracy.

"These cuts will fall disproportionately on minority students," says Mark Drummond, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, which estimates that it will turn away some 6,000 Hispanic students -- more than five times the number of Hispanic freshmen that the University of California at Los Angeles admitted last year.

At many community colleges, English-as-a-second-language and remedial courses, which pull in many minority students, are often sacrificed first when money gets tight. Given the choice, college officials prefer to save courses that students need in order to graduate or to transfer to four-year institutions. But many students can't enroll in those courses without first taking ESL and remedial classes.

At Austin Community College, Mary Corredor, chairwoman of the ESL program, has waiting lists for several of her courses. But because of Texas' budget cuts, the students on those waiting lists may be out of luck. When Ms. Corredor started working at the college, in 1998, there were 75 students in the program on one campus and 99 on another. Now the program has expanded to three campuses and more than 500 students. In March, state lawmakers announced midyear cuts for public colleges; Austin took a $3.1-million hit.

Because there wasn't enough money to hire part-time instructors, Ms. Corredor had to cut about a half-dozen ESL sections from the 45 that she normally offers in the summer. She doesn't know how many minority students were turned away, but the ESL classes enroll mostly Central and South American immigrants, as well as students from Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

The loss is particularly disturbing to the college's president, Richard W. Fonté, because public colleges across Texas are under pressure from lawmakers to increase the college-going rate of minority students. At Austin, Hispanic students account for less than 20 percent of the enrollment, although they make up more than 30 percent of the city's population.

"As far as 'access' institutions, we're the only game in town," says Mr. Fonté. "The fastest-growing percentage of the population is least likely to go to college, and budget cuts are starting to take away from our ability to do anything about it."

Across the country, wholesale cuts are also being made in vocational programs, as well as some low-enrollment programs in occupational fields, many of which enroll large proportions of minority students. The Community College of Baltimore County had to cut programs in computer-aided drafting, industrial maintenance and technology, and some other technical areas.

"We're trying to be careful to ensure that as we are making our decisions about program retrenchment, we are thinking about access," says Irving P. McPhail, chancellor of the college. "But in scaling back on vocational and remedial offerings" while preserving courses that students need in order to transfer, he acknowledges, "minority access will suffer at some point."

In Washington State, Earl Hale, executive director of the state community-college board, says many of the colleges in his system are cutting similar technical programs and paring down the offerings of many allied-health programs -- like nursing -- precisely at a time when some politicians and health professionals are calling for more diversity in the field.

Even in the many states where higher-education enrollment is booming, community colleges are not able to take in all the students who want to come.

In Washington, the state's community and technical colleges turned away students last year. The institutions, which enroll some 200,000 students, already had 9,000 for whom they received no state subsidies. (Two-year colleges are reimbursed about $3,500 per full-time-equivalent student.) In Florida, Sandford C. Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, notes that the state did not appropriate funds for one out of every four students who attended the college last year, a continuing limitation that has forced him to cap enrollment for this fall. Even without a cap, Mr. Shugart says, the college turned away roughly 3,000 students last fall. College surveys show that the students who are turned away are disproportionately low-income.

"It almost goes without saying that minority students often represent a large percentage of low-income students," he says, "which means that minority access is in jeopardy."

Tuition Blues

Budget cuts are also forcing many community colleges to raise tuition. If history is an indicator, some officials say, even slight increases in cost may have a negative effect on minority enrollment.

Mr. Hale notes that tuition is set to go up 35 percent at Washington State's 33 community colleges over the next three years. At Valencia, Mr. Shugart says, tuition has risen 8 percent in the past three years. Nationwide, tuition increased 7.9 percent last year at community colleges, according to the College Board.

In California, tuition at the state's community colleges is set to jump to $18 from $11 per credit this fall. The colleges raised tuition just $3 per credit hour in 1993. The following semester, black enrollment decreased 5.2 percent and Hispanic enrollment dropped by 4.1 percent.

At the City University of New York, officials say the minimum level of funds required by state law for two-year institutions has protected the city's six community colleges from having to turn away students so far. But Jay Hershenson, a spokesman, says CUNY officials are worried that a proposed $800 annual tuition increase this fall at the system's four-year institutions will lead to a decrease in minority enrollment. Currently, minority students make up 66 percent of CUNY's enrollment.

In 1995, when tuition rose $750 at the four-year colleges, enrollment dipped by 8,000. All students were affected, "but there were many minority students among them," says Mr. Hershenson. "We pride ourselves on diversity here."

The Michigan Battle

Many public-college officials say they have tried to impress upon lawmakers the impact that budget cuts will have on access for minority students. In Florida, where two-year institutions serve 75 percent of minority college students, officials made an appeal to the Legislature's Black Caucus. "They were very sympathetic," Mr. Shugart says. "But they're all Democrats in a Republican Legislature and a Republican administration."

In California, community-college students, faculty members, and administrators had more success after holding a rally attended by thousands. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, who had originally proposed a 10-percent cut in funds to community colleges, eased the reduction to 5.6 percent.

But such victories, and efforts on the part of public-college officials, have been few and far between, and they certainly don't rival the full-court press that higher education has brought into play for the Michigan affirmative-action cases.

The American Council on Education, for example, urged many of its 1,700 members, along with such corporations as General Mills, Texaco, Procter & Gamble, and DaimlerChrysler, to sign an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Michigan's admissions policy.

The council's president, David Ward, said he thought that colleges hadn't done enough to show support for the university's position. When asked if the council, for its part, had done enough to battle the state-budget cuts -- considering their impact on minority access -- he responds that "no alarm needed to be sounded."

The council, he points out, has commissions, lobbyists, and other vehicles in place to battle budget cuts in many ways almost every day of the year. "That's our basic bread and butter," he says. The Michigan case warrants a large-scale effort, he argues, because it "is an eruption in the time scale."

Even those worried about minority access in the face of budget cuts agree that the affirmative-action cases are important.

"It's not every day that the Supreme Court takes this on," says Mr. Reindl, of the state-college association. Besides, when college lobbyists plead with state lawmakers for mercy in a fiscal crisis, he says, "they respond by asking whose dialysis machine we want them to turn off in order to spare college budgets."

Still, the Michigan cases are "about choice, not access," says Mr. Callan, of the public-policy center. "Higher-education leaders have been so preoccupied with Michigan that they forgot about the little guys."

Students affected by budget cuts hardly wield the same political clout as students who, because they plan to attend elite colleges, would be more directly affected by the outcome of the Michigan cases. Some observers note that many Fortune 500 companies are choosing to back Michigan, rather than lend a hand in fighting budget cuts, because they recruit many future minority leaders from elite institutions.

"Chrysler can't have a lily-white executive suite," says Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, at Columbia University. "But they probably already feel like they have enough minorities in their entry-level jobs."

And the news media have highlighted the Michigan litigation because the lawsuits "deal with our national obsession with prestigious institutions and with race at the same time," says Mr. Callan. "The Michigan cases have got much more sex appeal."

Missing Students

Meanwhile, at Austin Community College, Diane Kramer, a counselor, goes through a list of students who have taken courses recently and then did not return the following semester. The college tries to contact them to persuade them to come back and, because of the cutbacks, to register early.

Many of them, though, barely speak English. And as often as not, Ms. Kramer says, the telephone numbers the college has for them are no longer in service.

"It's tough," she says with a sigh, coming upon a South American immigrant on her list. "Here's a student from the fall who had a problem getting [federal] financial aid, so his classes were dropped. By the time he got some money together and tried to add his courses back, all the sections were full.

"We haven't seen him since."
Section: Government & Politics
Volume 49, Issue 41, Page A17