A long, rectangular brick and glass library on the central green at Navarro College, a Texas community college located in Corsicana.
Wikimedia Commons/Michael Barera

Texas Wants to Save Community Colleges From Sinking

State lawmakers are considering new ways to fund schools that historically have given more students a chance to succeed beyond high school.

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Moss often felt depressed and frustrated as a homebound high school student in Ellis County. They felt isolated from other students and spent a lot of time waiting for teachers to answer emailed questions. They also repeated the ninth grade since they were unable to finish their school work because of several health problems.

Moss struggled, but earned their high school credits. Through a dual-enrollment program at their high school and Navarro College, the community college closest to home, Moss started college in January 2022—even though they had not technically earned their high school diploma. They walked the graduation stage in May 2022.

Moss is now enthusiastically attending classes in person at Navarro College. Moss lives with several disabilities, such as autism and scoliosis; they sometimes use a wheelchair. But getting to college is easy, since Moss’s mother or sister drives them for about 10 minutes to classes twice a week.

Moss, now working toward their second semester as an in-person, part-time student, enrolled in community college not only because they wanted to earn higher education credits at a place that is close to home, but also to save money. 

“I wanted to get my basic college credits without putting myself into debt,” Moss said, explaining why they chose community college over a four-year degree program. “I just now declared my major in mythology and folklore; I don’t want to spend a lot of money while I’m still figuring out what I want to do after graduation.” 

“I wanted to get my basic college credits without putting myself into debt. I don’t want to spend a lot of money while I’m still figuring out what I want to do after graduation.”

Community colleges like Navarro College have historically served a more diverse student body who face even more challenges post-pandemic. But nationwide, these schools face tremendous funding challenges of their own. While no community colleges have shut down in Texas, many here have faced funding deficits over the past 10 years that have been made worse since 2020. 

They need to attract students like Moss to survive. 

Texas still has a robust community college culture; these institutions in Texas attract more than 47 percent of students enrolled in higher education, according to the Texas Community Colleges Association and Community College Association of Texas Trustees.

However, community colleges have lost 827,000 students since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to 2022; total enrollment numbers at these institutions decreased by 9.5 percent from spring academic year 2020 to 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment slightly increased in 2021, yet never caught up to pre-pandemic numbers. The decline began before the pandemic: Community college enrollment for two-year degree programs decreased by 7 percentage points from 2010 to 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences

Though community colleges historically serve more students of color and more first-time college students, gender and racial equity and enrollment gaps have steadily increased too. For example, enrollment numbers for Black students, particularly Black men, have decreased.

As the pandemic continues into its third year, the 87th Texas Legislature (2021 session), empowered the Texas Commission on Community College Finance to redesign the funding model for community colleges, hopefully saving them from disaster. Some of the group’s preliminary recommendations include financially rewarding colleges for the number of students who earn “credentials of value,” and for those whose graduates transfer to a four-year degree program. In other words, instead of receiving funding based on enrollment alone, funding would depend on student outcomes. 

Those student outcome goals will potentially “[d]evelop a modern community college finance model that distributes the majority of state funding based on measurable outcomes, aligned with regional and state workforce needs and state goals for Building a Talent Strong Texas.” And the commission will define credentials of value as “degrees, certificates, and other credit or non-credit programs that equip Texas students for continued learning and greater earnings in the state economy; and credentials awarded in high-demand fields.”  

Commissioner Harrison Keller of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a shepherd of higher education in Texas, is “excited and encouraged” by the ongoing conversations. 

“Transforming the community college finance model–from an input-based funding structure to an outcomes-based funding structure–is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the educational inequity gaps across Texas,” Keller told the Texas Observer. “Texas will be the first state in the country to value the course credentials as a measure of student success.” 

“Texas will be the first state in the country to value the course credentials as a measure of student success.”

The preliminary recommendations to transform the way community colleges are funded in Texas, now under consideration, also include ways to try to address financial inequity gaps between low-income households or academically-challenged students, rural or smaller community colleges with lower tax bases to support them, and adult students between the ages of 35 and 64 who may have taken a hiatus from school and need to reskill or upskill in order to be more marketable in the Texas workforce.

For example, instead of rewarding colleges mostly for enrollment data for first-year students straight out of high school, the new goal in Texas will be to look harder at completion rates of both credit and non-credit courses, and of dual-enrollment programs in which high school students are taking college courses for both high school and college credit.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board ultimately wants to flip the funding model so that the state pays for roughly 70 percent of community college funding, instead of the current 25 percent share.

Republican state Senator Larry Taylor, who sits on the board of the Texas Commission on Community College Finance and is helping with the funding transformation, said, “If we don’t make this investment, we’re going to be dealing with budget issues for now on because [Texas] won’t be the economic engine it is today. This is something that has to be done.”

The decline in community college enrollment in Texas and elsewhere seem to have hit students of color hardest. In the fall of 2020, Black male enrollment declined by 19.2 percent across the country compared to the previous academic year, while enrollment by Hispanic males declined by 16.6 percent, according to Community College Review. Both enrollment drops are higher than the national average, 11.2 percent, over that same period. 

In the fall of 2020, Black male enrollment at community colleges declined by 19.2 percent across the country while enrollment by Hispanic males declined by 16.6 percent.

Community colleges remain more diverse than four-year university programs. For example, Black enrollment at Texas community colleges averages about 12 percent, while the average enrollment for Hispanics is 47 percent. White student enrollment in Texas stands in the middle at 29 percent, making Hispanic students at two-year programs the majority-minority.

Isabel Torres, a community college graduate, testified at the Texas Commission on Community College Finance hearing in early September in favor of reforms as a representative from the Texas Community College Student Advisory Council.

“When I first graduated from high school,” she said, “I paid for my community college education out of pocket, worked to support myself—and let college drop away.”

But Torres said that living in an area served by Austin Community College offered her the opportunity to return once she grew older and started to raise her daughter. She wanted a new career to support and be present for her family. Ultimately, Torres earned her associate degree.

“Once I became a parent I was eligible for more financial aid,” Torres said. “Without the [financial] support from my community college I wouldn’t have graduated with my associate degree in allied health science. And other students without financial support are forced to work multiple jobs, take out [student] loans, and go without health insurance or healthy meals to carry them through.”

But ACC’s health suffered during the pandemic. Its enrollment numbers decreased by over 10 percent from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021, data from the Texas Association of Community Colleges shows. 

Kay Trent, a Black, queer ACC student who serves on the Texas Community College Student Advisory Council with Torres, said many students have struggled to keep up with academics as well as costs. 

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“As our nation returns to pre-pandemic policies, we should think about how we can provide students with housing, food, and an environment that leads to their academic success,” Trent told the Observer. “Paid work-based learning opportunities while in school to gain employable skills, ensuring valuable credits don’t get lost in the transfer [process], and creating more dual-credit access can make all the difference.” 

Trent said that community colleges often “struggle” more to make ends meet for their students because they are educating a more diverse population. 

“For people of color, specifically Black people, the education system was never designed for us,” Trent said. “We are struggling while working full time, raising families, and many of us, including myself, are the first in our families to attend college.” 

“For people of color, specifically Black people, the education system was never designed for us.”

Trent joined the Texas Community College Student Advisory Council to share her experiences while advocating for affordable student housing, solving food insecurity problems on and off campus, and to improve the retention and completion rates at two-year degree programs. 

She’s passionate about speaking out for minority students because “We—women and Black people—are often taught to be seen and and not heard,” Trent said.

Surprisingly, part of community colleges’ financial struggle stems from the success of dual enrollment at public high schools, which has sharply increased over the past 10 years. Eighty-two percent of all public high schools nationwide now consist of dual-enrollment students according to the National Center of Educational Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences. But generally, community colleges that participate in dual enrollment do not share the funding normally associated with those students since they are still enrolled in high school. 

Some of the pending recommendations do include covering application fees and offering a stronger financial aid package to low-income students who want dual-enrollment credits, the expansion of eligibility for a grant program for low-income households, and support for a paid work credential with private employers so that students get hands-on experience.

A cement building with three very tall vertical windows in the main entrance, with the words "Paris Junior College" in an old-fashioned font above the entrance.
The Louis B. Williams Administration Building at Paris Junior College Wikimedia Commons/Michael Barera, Creative Commons Share-Alike license

The proposals also may provide additional support for colleges serving rural areas that tend to offer fewer options (and have less funding) for students than urban ones. Pam Anglin, president of Paris Junior College, said she is “optimistic” that her college, which has a much smaller tax base compared to most urban community colleges, will get more funding than it does now if next year’s session of the Legislature approves reforms that change the funding structure of community colleges.

“It has been obvious for a number of years that our [input-based] community college funding model no longer works,” Anglin said. “By switching the focus—or changing the mindset or culture from a contact hour/enrollment-driven perspective to a degree-completion mindset culture will bolster the support system at community colleges that every student needs to succeed,” she said.

Many high school officials push their students to dual enroll at community colleges. As a result, first-year enrollment numbers at community colleges have plummeted at places like Paris Junior College, where 43 percent of its students are now dually enrolled in classes, Anglin testified at Texas Commission on Community College Finance’s hearing in September. The recommendations don’t plug the holes in community college budgets created by these programs. However, the retention rate at community colleges is higher among dual-enrollment students compared to traditional students, and so colleges ultimately could get more funding since many of those students do complete classes and ultimately pursue degrees. 

“The more hours [high school students] have as dual credit, the more likely they are to matriculate directly into a university,” Anglin said.

Jonathan Feinstein, state director of Texas at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for educational equity, is confident that the Texas Commission on Community College Finance’s recommendations will be taken up during the next legislative session, though the reform package proposed by Keller has a $650 million price tag.

“The restructuring of financing community colleges has started with an intentional, well-led, engaged commission,” Feinstein said. “The budget projections for Texas are also very positive, so I’m confident the 88th Legislature will embrace the commission’s recommendations.” 

Under an outcomes-based finance model, college bound students will benefit, Feinstein said. “The success of the students who have been historically underrepresented, or have not attained post-secondary credentials, will be rewarded more. Once the target goal of completing a degree program, or transferring to a university is complete, the community college will get more funding for those student populations.”

“The restructuring of financing community colleges has started with an intentional, well-led, engaged commission.”

During the pandemic, Navarro College was one of the places where enrollment decreased—dropping by 16.6 percent from fall academic year 2019 to 2021, statistics show. Over the last decade, its enrollment has dropped by nearly 35 percent from academic year 2012 to 2022; 10,040 students were enrolled in 2012 and now 6,565 are enrolled. As with many other schools, the decrease in enrollment partly reflects how many students are turning to dual credits instead of entering community college after high school graduation, said Kevin Fagen, president of Navarro College. 

Still, Fagen said the proposed funding transformation at Texas community colleges would benefit Navarro College in several ways.

First, the recommendations would allow the Navarro College District to claim four out of the five counties it serves as rural and seek additional funding, Fagen said.  

The reforms would also allow Navarro College to benefit from its own success. 

Despite enrollment declines, Navarro College awarded more credentials than ever during the pandemic, Fagen said. He noted that safeguards, such as state and national testing after graduation, are already used to control the quality of the education so that degrees will not be awarded based on the funding incentives.

“We’re very supportive of the [commission’s] recommendations,” Fagen said. “We see many opportunities that are tailored to affordability at Navarro College.” 

Ultimately, the recommended funding transformation focuses on helping more students like Moss, Torres, and Trent succeed.

Moss has already made great strides. As a homebound student in 2020, in between their online classes and meeting with their public high school instructor at home, they earned an online HarvardX course. 

Although they see the pros and cons in both online and in-person classes, Moss prefers in-person classes at Navarro College because of the face-to-face conversations with students and instructors. They especially like the quick classroom interaction when they ask a question and their instructor immediately answers.

After Moss graduates from Navarro College, they want to pursue a bachelor’s and master’s degree—then later a Ph.D in mythology and folklore. They are considering increasing semester credits, and may take some online classes to speed up their educational accomplishments.

For now, Moss enjoys their painting class, learning about color theory and composition. “I’ve always been very artistic,” Moss said. “The painting class is nice because I get to expand on my artistry while earning college credit.”