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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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No Shark Tanks At NCC

It was technically by mutual agreement, but Nassau Community College President Astrab was separated from the school last week, after two years and much complaining and agitation by faculty members who felt they were not given their traditional input into program changes. Already, there are published threats to turn the campus “into a shark tank” if the next president does not pay proper respect to faculty senate resolutions, or proposes tuition increases to maintain class choices. Two years ago, there were serious allegations of attempted manipulation of the presidential selection process by outside political forces. This time, it can’t be just another game.

It isn’t scientific at all, but it is telling that the first 119 posts on Newsday’s online comment boards about the NCC situation were largely (57 percent) negative toward the college. Just over a third specifically wanted the college closed, referred to it as “welfare,” or otherwise questioned why tax dollars go to this. This is definitely a minority view, but those who hold it have learned to make themselves heard. And politicians read this. They fear this.

There isn’t any invisible force field shielding Nassau County from what’s happening in the rest of America.

All across the country, community colleges have been thrown out of the lifeboat. It’s bad. A few weeks ago, documents revealed that even City College of San Francisco Community College, the largest college and best-known two-year school in California, is in such deep fiscal trouble that its accreditation could be pulled, which would cost students their financial aid eligibility and effectively close the campus. Arizona community colleges are now down to 1 percent state funding, and that will expire with a special sales tax next year. The Texas House wanted to close four community colleges last year, but the Senate insisted that the reductions come from student aid. Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin. More.

Community colleges are a critical leveler, along with the public library, one of the great American innovations in education and opportunity. But New York and Nassau County didn’t invest in public higher education because it was nice. It was a cold, hard business decision. Businesses need and want educated workforces. Our region needs workers with skills and knowledge taught at community colleges. It isn’t nice. It’s business.

Although the current state budget holds community college funding steady after two years of jolting cuts, New York hasn’t lived up to its statutory target funding level for decades. Our community colleges have learned to economize. NCC offers a pretty good value for our tax and tuition dollars. Annual tuition for a full-time resident of Nassau County for this school year is $3,990, less than many New York residents pay to attend their community colleges, including those of our sister suburbs of Westchester, Rockland and Orange Counties. It’s less than they pay in Onondaga County smack in the middle of the state, and only slightly more than they pay up in rural Franklin and Essex Counties, where they pick up the French radio stations from Quebec. Nassau residents pay more for a lot of things, but not for their community college, because administrations have done a good job of adjusting, stretching dollars and holding things together.

New York’s community colleges are still among the more expensive ones in the country, costing about $8,000 a year when you factor in administrative fees and typical costs for books, supplies and other expenses. Community college isn’t a free ride, and it isn’t welfare.

But unless we rethink how they are structured and paid for, unless we can be flexible and adapt, we are heading for an Epic Fail.

Across the country, funding models for community colleges are breaking down, even after painful choices to scale back and eliminate programs. State and municipal funds continue to dry up and colleges are becoming heavily reliant on tuition and fees (now approaching 60 percent of campus income in many states), taking on the characteristics of private colleges. NCC students contribute 41 percent of NCC’s costs. Nassau County is a financial basket case. If every source of new or increased revenue is cut off, then where is this really going?  

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net