Iowa Education: Community colleges falling behind in per-pupil state funding

The original legislation that founded community colleges in Iowa was introduced in 1965 by Senator Jack Kibbie, and tuition was a mere $25-30 per credit hour according to Jim Stick, dean of liberal arts at DMACC. Since then, Iowa’s community colleges have expanded and become invaluable assets to the health of our state’s education system and economy.

Candidates running for office are emphasizing these institutions as a crucial part of the higher education system and advocating for more funding of technical skill programs. Students are recognizing the benefits of community college; the 2017 DMACC annual report said more than 35,000 credit students attended DMACC alone.

But this value seems to be continuously ignored in recent legislatures. Between 2000 and 2018, the amount of state funding per student for community colleges never rose above $3,000 (pictured), according to the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees (IACCT). In comparison, the legislature consistently granted private colleges between $2,000 and $3,000, and regent institutions $10,000 or more per student. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is not the gap itself, but the consistency of it over the past 18 years. Stick said the general perception is that each system is equally funded, “but it’s not that way at all.”

Of the three higher education systems, Iowa’s 15 community colleges served more students than private schools and regents combined in 2017. MJ Dolan, executive director of IACCT, said this included more than 130,000 credit students, and the majority of vocational students in the state, about 158,000. Nevertheless, the legislature still heaved a $3 million cut on Iowa community colleges this year.

“The regent’s budget was cut more than ours percentage-wise, but it depends on where you are,” Stick said. The $3 million slash dispersed amongst the 15 community colleges left DMACC $800,000 short. Being the largest public community college in the state, DMACC had other resources to cope with the loss rather than raise tuition.

Dual-enrollment and online classes, as well as the populous location of DMACC all help minimize the impact of budget cuts, according to Stick. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, President Rob Denson said that the only rise in tuition was the usual one, which accounts for cost of living increases. “We took the stance that students had nothing to do with this,” Denson said.

State funding is more crucial to the success of smaller Iowa community colleges, and this cut in combination with a long-term pattern of stagnant funding puts some of them in a serious bind. Dolan said the stationary pattern in state funding can be just as troublesome as budget cuts.

“In Iowa, it’s a very serious issue. When it comes to budget time, [community colleges] are not a priority,” she said. “If we receive the same percentage, we stay on that same level.”

For example, if operation costs go up for Northwest Iowa Community College, a school of less than 2,000 students in a rural area of the state, its income plus the state funding may not cover the cost. This situation would force administration to raise tuition for students. In fact, two Iowa community colleges are on the list of two-year public schools that have the highest tuitions in the nation, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to Dolan, higher tuition resulting from low funding is a national issue. “There are very few states not seeing low funding in community colleges,” she said. In Iowa, DMACC offers the lowest tuition of the fifteen community colleges, but compared to other states, Stick said it is probably high.

In addition to serving more students than any other higher education institution, 81 percent of Iowa community college students stay in the state to find a job or continue their education, according to the IACCT website. By staying, Stick said that these students strengthen the workforce and help the economy grow. In comparison, he said about two-thirds of private college students leave Iowa after graduating as well as approximately half of state university students.

“Here, we are basically educating people we know are going to stay here [whichever kind of degree] they get. The reason they went to the community college is because it was in their community,” Stick said.

At IACCT, Dolan said they contact each legislator every year to educate them on the importance of community colleges in Iowa.

“We believe that legislators know the value of community colleges,” she said. However, as the disparity in funding between the three higher education systems has persisted for 18 years, she said, “We would like to see a long-term commitment to increase funding per pupil in the state of Iowa.”

Stick is also optimistic about the future. He echoed Dolan, saying that the legislature has always been supportive of community colleges, but “the proportions have changed.” He said a balance between the three would be ideal moving forward.

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