As I pursued my doctorate degree, I had a university professorship squarely in my sights. When I first started teaching at a rural community college in Wyoming, I was still working on my Ph.D. I soon found a passion for the community college mission—I knew I was home, and I never looked back. It really is all about the students. It was amazing to see them explore their own passion for life and for a career choice. As a new teacher, I had the opportunity to learn from seasoned professors who loved being in the classroom and I could see they were making a difference in the lives of their students.
In Arizona today, community colleges are helping more than 300,000 students prepare for the future. Whether they’re in career training programs or academic courses on the way to a university, these community mainstays are a critical part of the state’s educational and economic infrastructure.
Our students choose community college for a wide variety of reasons. Some choose this path because of the career training available, while others want to save money by taking courses at a community college before heading to a university. Some students desire the smaller feel of our campuses and smaller size of our classes, and then there are some who want to continue their education but may not feel academically ready for a university. Regardless of the reason, community colleges are serving a vital purpose.
The funding plan for community colleges that has been considered appropriate across the United States is for one-third to come from the state, one-third from tuition and one-third from local property taxes. Over the years, the funding landscape has become far more complex, and in some cases, very uneven, with state funding significantly decreasing. Different communities have different needs, but our current funding mechanisms aren’t addressing them.
For instance, the base tax rate for Coconino Community College is approximately two-thirds less than the next lowest base tax rate for a community college in Arizona. Combine that with the understanding that Coconino County is home to thousands of acres of national parks, tribal lands and forest land with no property tax collection, and you can see how this makes our tax revenue significantly less than other colleges. We operate on several million dollars less revenue than that of similar colleges. As a result, Coconino Community College must make tough choices about what to offer, and we’re forced to increase tuition in an attempt to make up the difference.
On average, Coconino Community College serves 8,500 students a year at two campuses in Flagstaff and an instructional site in Page (we have been forced to discontinue services in rural locations and close a campus due to the decline in funding). We want to prepare our students for the future, no matter what that is, but there remain programs that are much-needed for our region that we simply cannot afford.
A lack of funding precludes us from offering high cost career and technical programs such automotive mechanics (usually provided by many community colleges across the nation). When we do not offer the training needed in our county, our residents are forced to move to prepare for a career such as this. Believe me, we have a lot of cars that need repair in Northern Arizona!
During the Great Recession, Arizona cut higher education spending more than any other state. As state spending has returned to previous levels in some areas, Arizona’s colleges and universities have not seen much of that funding return. Thankfully, rural community colleges did benefit from a one-time funding opportunity provided by the legislature to support career and technical education two years ago, and we had high hopes for that funding to continue. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic came along and that was no longer a consideration.
In the 2017-18 fiscal year, Arizona’s community colleges supported 211,258 jobs. Our statewide economic impact was $14.1 billion. The community college system is often an afterthought, but as you can see, Arizona’s economy cannot afford that. Community colleges are here to serve the state of Arizona and help turn the economy around with a trained workforce as we come through this pandemic. We need your support.
Colleen A. Smith, PhD, is president of Coconino Community College. Prior to coming to Arizona, she held administrative and faculty roles at colleges in Texas and in Wyoming. Beyond her role with the college, Dr. Smith serves on the Boards of the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona, the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance and LAUNCH Flagstaff.