A Houston Moment Milbert O. Brown, Jr. (2011)
During Apollo 13’s spaceflight mission, one of the most famous messages to earth’s mission control was ‘Houston—we have a problem.’ The gloomy information echoed throughout the room as the troubled crew told “Houston,” that their spaceship’s oxygen tank exploded affecting the electrical system. When the crew of Lowell, Swigert and Haise safely returned to earth, their mission was tapped by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the “successful failure.”
The mission of Apollo 13 was to land on the moon, but the mission was cancelled because of ship damage. Today, many community colleges have shot for the moon, but were unsuccessful in their quest similar to the men of Apollo 13. The infrastructures of their institutions have been damaged. It can even be said that there is an oxygen deficiency caused by the student enrollment tsunami. Bodies of students have come ashore en mass to open the accessible doors of community college opportunity.
Community college budgets have not been able to keep pace with the rising tide of student enrollment. Their buildings are too old–-too small and technologically inadequate to serve the incoming wave of students. Currently, we are faced with a major enrollment boom where the federal government has made no substantial facilities investment to expand system capacity. 1 As a result, many community college officials issued the call, “Houston—we have a problem.” In recent times, “Houston” has not answered back—quickly. For many public-supported community colleges, their “Houston” is state funding. In What Does It All Mean? Janice N. Friedel said “cuts in funding mean additional rationing of seats at the higher education table, with caps at four-year institutions ‘pushing’ more students to community colleges, which in turn are challenged to serve unemployed young and older adults in need of retraining due to the recession.”
The great recession has overtaxed all normal fixed financial solutions on every college and university on the planet. Students are rioting in the streets in England because of tuition hikes. American students are standing outside in an academic midnight. In early 20th century America, waves of immigrants were welcomed to her shores. The view of the Statue of Liberty gave them hope. For years, the community college represented the Statue of Liberty’s hope for people who sought academic access. Their small campuses were the recipients of those rejected from some four-year schools. Now, at some of the four-year colleges enrollment has capped. Students are enrolling at community colleges, staying near home, minimizing expenses before launching to the big state flagship school. In days of old, community colleges were the academic armpit. Now, things have changed and community colleges are needed more than ever. They provide people with an affordable learning station.
The community colleges in a real way are still the Statue of Liberty for many untrained workers, unprepared students and the unemployed. In the belly of the statue is a bronze plague from the words of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, The New Colossus that reads, “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The crew of Apollo 13 was scared because their oxygen tanks were damaged in dark cold space. They too like the community college wanted to breathe free—fresh air.
The state operating budget cuts have also damaged the oxygen supply of community colleges. The tuition and enrollment hikes present a problem for colleges governed by state operating funds. The problem is that state-operating support for education is predicted to decline next year. According to the Associated Press community college enrollment in Texas surged 12.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, a trend officials expect to continue even as educators worry about whether funding levels during a state budget crunch can support the growth.3 "It couldn't come at a worse time, because we're experiencing record double-digit enrollment growth," said Rey García, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges.
In conclusion, the tide of students landing at community colleges is due in part to the great recession. The country is in an economic pickle and the “Houston problem,” of state funding cuts is a growing fire hazard. Today, community colleges have been successful based on the number of students entering their doors for training. They raised tuition and some still have old buildings. They are successful, but they have failed as well. Community colleges are similar to NASA, in that they have accepted this junction in history as a “successful failure.” In short, universities and colleges will only become fully successful when they can solve their funding issues through both state and private revenue sources. Also leaders must never lose sight of the fact that the community college experience must remain “an opportunity of access for all people-- “… the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
1,2 Katsinas, S.G., and Friedel, J.N. (2010). Uncertain recovery: access and funding issues in public higher education. 2010 Survey of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges. University of Alabama Education Policy Center.
3 Associated Press. “Booming enrollment at Texas community colleges.” December 30, 2010. Khou.com. Retrieved from: http://www.khou.com/news/Texas-community-colleges-see-booming-enrollment--112665789.html
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