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Turning Students Away
The plight of Florida’s community colleges suggests the depth of the state’s financial crisis

By Robert A. Jones

 
Eduardo Padrón (right), president of Miami Dade College, chats with students at the downtown campus. His audacious plan for a half-cent sales tax increase in Dade County would create a badly needed source of funding for the college.
 
Miami

FLORIDA’S EDUCATORS have predicted an Armageddon here almost as frequently as weathermen predict hurricanes. Each time the state whacked the higher education budget, the predictions of doom grew more dire. But no one expected disaster to strike quite so dramatically as it did on a hot summer’s night here in Miami, at the state’s flagship community college.

The night of June 17, 2009 already has become something of a legend at Miami Dade College, with virtually all the administrators and students able to tell their own stories of the evening’s horrors. It was the night when burgeoning demand for education ran headlong into shrunken supply.

Miami Dade College does not, initially, present itself as the poster child of broken budgets. It sprawls over eight campuses and this year will attract 170,000 students, making it the largest public institution of higher education in the nation. Its campuses have art galleries, intercollegiate sports teams and literary magazines.

Miami Dade, in fact, is a place of many superlatives in the world of institutions that grant associate’s degrees: It produces more two-year degrees, more minority graduates, and collects more Pell grants than any other public college in the country. Its president, Eduardo Padrón, was on the short list of candidates for appointment as President Barack Obama’s secretary of education.

And so, considering the college’s size and expertise, nothing initially seemed amiss when it announced it would open online registration for the fall semester at midnight on June 17. Looking back, however, various signs pointed to trouble.

In the weeks prior, college officials warned students that, for the first time in its history, the college would not have the resources to add new sections to courses when extra demand appeared. Once the allotted sections were filled, the courses would be closed. This distinction was crucial because sections constitute the currency of the community college system, and adding sections allows colleges to expand with demand and maintain their open-to-all policy.

The warnings came even as demand for education and retraining was mushrooming throughout south Florida, much of it pushed by the economic crisis. The new education seekers included recently laid-off workers, former soldiers on the GI Bill, students whose families could no longer afford higher-priced institutions, and the sons and daughters of recent immigrants.

Throughout the summer they enrolled at the college, and when the midnight hour struck on June 17, a huge horde of them—no one knows precisely how many—stood ready at their laptops. Everyone rushed the virtual door of the college at the same time, trying to grab the available classes. And then the door slammed shut.

Overwhelmed, the college’s computers blocked entry to many of those trying to register, while allowing others to proceed. Aaron Pabon, editor of the student newspaper at the college’s Kendall campus, fell asleep at his computer just before midnight and then awoke with a start. He hurriedly tried to sign onto the system, but it was too late. His girlfriend, Melody Aleman, hit the button on her computer a few miles away and was admitted.

The college’s registrar, Dulce Beltran, watched the electronic traffic jam with amazement from her home computer. She had never seen such a tide of humanity sweeping toward the college on registration night. Signing into the system as an administrator, she watched as classes filled with startling rapidity. She could also see that thousands of students were being shut out because of the overload, and with each passing minute, their chances of finding classes were diminishing.

The meaning of the moment was not lost on Beltran. Miami Dade, once open to all, was now closing its doors through random selection. Somewhere a computer was choosing who would gain entry to the registration process and who would not. In effect, the computer was choosing who would have access to education.

In the days that followed, administrators attempted to mitigate the damage by hand-processing registration for many of those who had been shut out. Still, the damage was done. Beltran estimates that some 30,000 students at Miami Dade failed to get courses they needed to stay on a graduation track. Some 5,000 students got no courses at all.

 
Dulce Beltran, Miami Dade College’s registrar, watched from her computer as online registration became an electronic traffic jam. Thousands of students were shut out because of the overload, unable to get the courses they needed.
 
And the agony did not end there. Cutbacks in the financial aid and advisement staffs meant students could spend entire days trying to get paperwork and schedules completed. A month after school started, the long lines remained. The delays in aid processing grew so long that some students were forced to borrow money for tuition until their loan or scholarship checks arrived.

The college, of course, trundles forward, carrying on the year’s work. But to Miami Dade officials the significance of June 17 was ominous: one of the grand bargains of American education had been broken. That bargain said that, while a kid from an underprivileged background might not get into Harvard, or even Florida State, if he or she had a high school diploma and the desire for more education, it would be available at a place like Miami Dade.

On the fourth floor of the downtown campus of Miami Dade, President Padrón and his top lieutenants operate out of a cool and modern suite of offices above the central courtyard. Padrón, 64 years old, makes a habit of greeting visitors himself in the anteroom and escorting them to the inner sanctum. His manner is almost old-world in its courtliness, and he speaks in a soft cadence. But the words contain a barely controlled anger.

“In all this time,” Padrón said, referring to the breakdown and difficulties of the autumn, “I have not had one phone call from a legislator saying they were sorry. To them, it’s like nothing has happened.”

The legislators in Tallahassee are much on the minds of Padrón and his compatriots here. For three years the lawmakers have relentlessly slashed college and university budgets. At Miami Dade, the retreat of state funding has come in several forms and can only be appreciated in its totality.

Since 2007, budget reductions for the college have amounted to 18 percent, or some $35.2 million, while enrollment steadily increased. This year the cuts were mitigated somewhat by the arrival of $13.6 million in federal stimulus money.

Those direct funding reductions came on top of the withdrawal of $27 million in scholarship matching funds, forcing the college to compensate by drawing down other accounts.

And the cruelest cut of all came from the state’s peculiar funding system for community colleges, which allocates money according to the previous three years’ average enrollment. When demand grows at the colleges, as it usually does, campuses find themselves teaching students for whom they are not reimbursed by the state.

At Miami Dade, those figures are startling. This year it has 35,000 unfunded students, equivalent to the entire undergraduate population of the University of Florida. The annual bill for those students comes to $39 million.

“The system has collapsed here,” said Padrón. “We can’t hire faculty to teach students, and our buildings are deteriorating and breaking down. Thousands and thousands of students have been turned away, which has never happened in our history. If we are forced to keep rejecting these students, I fear we are headed for some kind of social breakdown. You simply can’t deprive people of a way upward.”

Padrón looked out his window which reveals part of the downtown campus. Referring to presidents at other state colleges, he said, “Many of my colleagues won’t dare say these things because, frankly, they are afraid of losing their jobs. I understand that. But someone has to say it so we can begin to try and reverse the tide.”

By all accounts, reversing the tide will be a major challenge. Florida has never been generous to higher education and, among the states, currently ranks near the bottom in funding for public colleges and universities.

Moreover, the economic crisis struck famously hard here. More than most states, Florida rode the housing boom to prosperity during the early years of the decade and now is reaping the whirlwind. Its foreclosure rate ranks among the highest in the nation, and in the past two years its annual tax receipts have dropped by more than $12 billion.

Across the state, scenes of the cataclysm litter the landscape. Here in Miami whole clusters of candy-colored condo high-rises stand empty, almost as if they had been struck by a neutron bomb. In Coral Gables the fronts of closed stores have been covered by perky scenes of affluent shoppers, as if to disguise the failure. The state is losing population for the first time in a century.

Florida’s problems are compounded by its near total reliance on the sales tax for revenue. One of the most tax phobic regions of the country, Florida has no income tax, meaning its recovery will await a resurgence in consumer spending. Thus far, it has not appeared. The latest available figures show sales tax revenue lagging behind last year’s levels, which were already anemic.

As legislators found themselves forced to choose between higher education and other needs such as prisons and Medicaid, higher education has lost. “When you have the state losing billions in revenues, legislators are going to gravitate first to the essentials,” said Patrick Dallet, a recently retired senior analyst for the legislature. “And higher education is not regarded as an essential.”

The pain has been shared up and down the food chain. State funding of the university system was chopped by $451 million, or 22 percent, over the last two years, while enrollment at the 11 campuses declined slightly to 256,000 students. In addition, the state’s highly popular Bright Futures scholarship program was curtailed.

Some relief for the universities has come in the form of $161 million in federal stimulus funds. In addition, the Florida Board of Governors capped freshman enrollment at 2007 levels and, after several years of tortured negotiations with lawmakers, it won approval of 15 percent annual hikes in tuition. The hikes will continue until Florida’s traditionally low tuition reaches the national average for public institutions.

 
Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell, who last summer announced a withering series of cutbacks, says the changes are permanent.
 
None of those measures has relieved the gloom. At a town hall meeting at Florida State University over the summer, President T.K. Wetherell opened the conclave by quoting Winston Churchill. “It takes a master craftsman years to build a mansion, but only a matter of hours to burn it down,” he told the gathering. “That’s where we are today with Florida State.”

Wetherell likened the universities’ plight to that of the nation after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The changes, he said, are permanent. “We are not going back to the way things were two or three years ago,” he said.

A few weeks later Wetherell announced a withering series of cutbacks at his university: the “suspension” of the Geology department, layoffs of 200 staff and faculty members including 25 tenured professors, and the requirement that several satellite campuses find their own, independent funding for operations within three years.

But, bad as they are, the recession-induced agonies of Florida’s universities are not nearly as severe as those of the community colleges. The reason is simple: When the University of Florida caps enrollment and displaces students, those students almost always find other institutions to attend, most notably the community colleges. But when a community college such as Miami Dade caps enrollment, those displaced students are pushed out of higher education altogether.

Additionally, the community colleges are charged with educating those students most in need of it: the vast and growing population of minority and underprivileged young people. This group has lagged badly in education and accounts for much of America’s fall from grace in terms of higher education leadership. If the nation is to recover that leadership, the community colleges must do the heavy lifting.

A profile of students at Miami Dade offers clues of this distinction. According to the college, 75 percent of its freshmen arrive needing remedial classes in reading or math; nearly two-thirds come from families classified as low-income or poverty-level by the federal government; most are the first generation of college goers in their families.

“The plight of the community colleges is always something that annoyed me,” said Robert Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education who now resides in Sarasota, Florida. “They receive far less in funding than the four-year institutions, and yet they are so important. Several times (at the council) I tried to get something going that would re-balance the funding disparity, but the idea failed. The community colleges have never been able to muster the political clout of the universities.”

If anything, the disparity between the universities and community colleges has gotten worse. Last year the freshman class at the University of Florida sported an average SAT score of 1293, and at Florida State it was 1261, numbers that rival some top private universities. In the face of this competition, minority enrollment has been falling at both institutions.

Meanwhile, the state’s per-student funding for universities now stands at $11,519, or roughly four times the $2,859 for community colleges. And while university enrollment here has remained flat since the recession hit, community college enrollment has exploded. This year alone it grew 20 percent, according to the Association of Florida Community Colleges.

Remarkably, the state’s community colleges have built themselves into one of the leading associate’s degree granting systems in the nation, in spite of the state’s parsimony. A number of surveys has placed them in the top rank, and the magazine Community College Week lists five Florida colleges among the top producers of associate’s degrees in the nation.

But within the Florida system, Miami Dade stands in a category by itself. Community College Week ranks Miami Dade first in the nation in the number of degrees awarded to African Americans and Hispan-ics, and number one in academic degrees leading to transfer to four-year institutions.

All by itself, Miami Dade transfers so many students to the University of Florida that they account for 18 percent of the university’s undergraduate student body, according to the college. Its 300 programs offer classes in everything from sheet metal work to higher math, and the schedule operates seven days a week, from early morning until midnight.

In the midst of producing those numbers, the college has also pulled off something of a hat trick, at least for a community college. It has risen to the status of a major cultural asset in Miami. When Arne Duncan, the new U.S. secretary of education, made his first visit to a college campus, he came to Miami Dade. When Padrón held a fundraiser recently, the keynote speaker was First Lady Michelle Obama.

Miami Dade’s graduates include local congressmen, police chiefs, mayors, judges and business tycoons. The college hosts the city’s book fair and film festival. And if the college’s chess team beats its counterparts at Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, as it did in 2006, everyone in town knows about it.

“Eduardo (Padrón) could probably be elected President of the United States if the election were limited to Miami,” said Martin Fine, a prominent local attorney who served on the Miami Dade board in the 1990s. “He and the college are that important to the community.”

Padrón has made his mistakes, and his style of top-down management produced a short-lived faculty revolt in the late 1990s. But today he is largely lionized and given credit for instilling the college’s administration with a sense of fervor for its mission. Rolando Montoya, the college provost, described the administration as operating “something like an apostolate.”

“I don’t want to exaggerate, but people come to work here every day with the goal of helping those who don’t have much,” said Montoya in his office next to Padrón’s. “To me, even our bureaucratic fights are interesting in that way. People don’t fight for salaries or travel or perquisites. They fight for classroom space or new desks, tools that can help the students. It becomes a passion, and it’s contagious.”

But the fact is, Miami Dade is still going broke. And the prospects for a rescue from Tallahassee appear slim.

Michael Brawer, executive director of the Association of Florida Community Colleges in Tallahassee, said that, as of October, “the situation doesn’t look any better for next year, although it doesn’t look any worse. I think many people will be happy if funding doesn’t get cut again.”

The federal stimulus money will remain for one more year, and this year all state colleges were permitted to raise tuition by eight percent (compared to the 15 percent allowed for universities). Still, added together, these numbers mean Miami Dade and other community colleges likely will tread water in the coming year, at best, and more students almost certainly will be refused entrance.

 
“Dennis Gallon, president of Palm Beach Community College, where enrollment grew by 13 percent this fall, says he perceives no light at the end of the tunnel. “If there is a light, it’s the light of another train coming at us.”
 
Dennis Gallon, president of Palm Beach Community College, where enrollment grew by 13 percent this fall, said he perceives no light at the end of the tunnel. “If there is a light, it’s the light of another train coming at us,” he said. “And that train is full of more students—always more students.”

Though Palm Beach has not yet turned away students, as did Miami Dade, Gallon makes no promises about the future. This year, he said, more than half the college’s classes were taught by adjunct faculty, because regular faculty members cannot be hired to handle the influx. “How can you maintain a quality education if you rely on adjuncts to teach 52 percent of your classes?” Gallon asked. “The answer is, you can’t. We have lost something, I won’t deny it.”

Padrón, like Gallon, sees little or no relief for these conditions coming from any traditional source of revenue. The only hope, he has decided, lies in an audacious plan to create an entirely new source of funding. That plan involves a half-cent sales tax increase in Dade County. Being limited to the county, the plan would benefit only Miami Dade rather than the college system as a whole. It will require the college first to persuade the legislature to place the issue on the ballot and then to win support of the local electorate.

Depending on how you count, this plan already has failed once or twice in recent years. In 2008 Florida voters rejected a state amendment that would have allowed any county to impose a sales tax increase to aid community colleges.

The measure lost in every county in the state except one: Dade County, where it passed with 61 percent of the vote. This exception was not lost on Padrón and his colleagues, who saw it as a reaffirmation of local support. So they went back to the legislature this spring to request authorization for a Dade County measure, arguing that the local voters had already expressed their enthusiasm for the idea.

The request sailed through the state Senate but suddenly died in the House when a committee chairman, from another region, declared the proposal “bad tax policy” and refused to hold a hearing on it.

Padrón is convinced the measure can be resurrected, and so, this spring, he will make another run at Tallahassee, marshalling a wide array of south Florida political and business leaders to argue on its behalf.

If passed, the measure would rescue the college in one fell swoop. College officials estimate the revenue at $170 million annually, or about half the college’s budget. Over the entire life of the increase, which would expire after five years, the college would receive $850 million.

Not surprisingly, the campaign has produced some ambivalence on the part of officials from other colleges that would receive no benefits. Gallon, president of Palm Beach, expressed his doubts with delicacy. He said he supports Padrón in the campaign but did not believe it would be good for the system as a whole.

“When you create pockets of excellence in the system, with different levels of funding, you are going to have problems,” he said. “It would be far better to have a solution for everyone.”

The Miami Dade plan does, in fact, have a Darwinian tinge to it. The college, under extreme stress, is attempting to save itself. As such, it may be suggesting something about the depth of Florida’s crisis. When institutions are driven to near starvation, they will do whatever is necessary to survive. If they must abandon the old harmonies in the process, so be it.

In any case, Padrón is optimistic about the outcome. Florida—and, by extension, the United States—has no choice but to recognize the value of its community colleges, he said. “If the country is going to recover from this economic crisis and once again become a vigorous nation, we must provide a way upward for the millions who have so little. And no one else can do that but places like Miami Dade.”


Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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National CrossTalk December 2009

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