Rural Community Colleges Face Financial Squeeze
by Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune
SNYDER — The coffers at Western Texas College are about as dry as the windswept West Texas plains that surround it. Reductions in state financing have been a literal drain — last year, the college cut costs by emptying its NCAA competition-sized pool.
“We have a large hole that used to be a swimming pool,” said Mike Dreith, the college’s president. “And we have a beautiful room designed to be a planetarium. It’s a nice, circular storage room now.”
Any more cuts would certainly mean faculty layoffs, said Patricia Claxton, the college’s chief financial officer. “We are already to the bone,” she said.
The remote institution in Snyder, population 11,000, has a shallow bench to begin with: Only two people in the town are qualified to teach public speaking at the collegiate level. One teaches at Western Texas, and the other is Dreith.
In rural West Texas, as with elsewhere in the state, community colleges play a pivotal role in the higher-education landscape, providing academic opportunities for students who are not able or willing to go away to universities to further their education. In Snyder, for example, it’s roughly a 100-mile drive to the nearest university. But the institutions also face unique financial challenges that demand creative solutions to keep the doors open and to help sustain the region.
Duncan noted that in addition to state appropriations declining, which means schools are increasingly relying on tuition and local taxes, a quirk in the taxing system can limit financing for such colleges.
South Plains College in Levelland, for example, serves a region in the Panhandle that is larger than some states, but it can only collect taxes from its local area. Though it is the main feeder school for Texas Tech University in Lubbock, its tax base does not extend the 30 miles to the city.
Rural West Texas colleges, therefore, must generate significant local buy-in. The community college tax rates around South Plains and Western Texas are more than double those for colleges in urban areas like Austin or Dallas.
Western Texas officials have struck a deal with the local community. Scholarships are available for students from Scurry County, the local tax base, that completely cover their tuition and fees, provided they maintain certain grades and standards.
For many residents, it is an impossible deal to turn down. Tanner Robertson, a student from Snyder in his second year at Western Texas, never questioned where he would go after high school. “You graduate from Snyder High School, and you go to WTC,” he said. “It’s what you’re raised to do.”
Increasingly, Dreith said, the school is working with estate planners and companies to finance its operations to ensure its future.
“We spend as much time on that, unfortunately, by virtue of the financial circumstances that we’re in, as we do on student success, which is really job one,” he said, noting that Western Texas still has among the highest community college graduation rates in the state.
The financial situation at South Plains is not as dire, because it is less remote, but the schools’ concerns are similar, and so are their aspirations. “Our goal is to sustain rural Texas,” said Kelvin Sharp, the college’s president.
“We can’t all live in Lubbock,” he said. “Some people have to live in Muleshoe, Plains or Denver City. And you have to have an auto mechanic, and firefighters, nurses and all the things we offer in technical ed. You have to have those basic services.”