The nation’s first public community college, Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., was founded in 1901 as an experimental postgraduate high school program. It would be safe to say that the experiment was a success. More than a century later, nearly 1,200 community, technical, and junior colleges operate in the U.S., educating some 11.5 million students per year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Today’s community colleges serve three distinct missions, says Deborah Shepley, AIA, community college practice leader at HMC Architects, based in Irvine, Calif. One mission is to provide basic-skills instruction to help students succeed, whether they are at the community college, looking to transfer, or acquiring skills for the workforce; another mission is to provide lower-division education to support those who want to transfer to four-year universities; and lastly, they aim to provide workforce training. Community colleges need to be all things to all people—even as they have ever-decreasing resources to offer.

Keeping Up With California

At the center of the community college conversation is California. With 72 districts and 112 community colleges serving 2.9 million students per year, it is the largest higher-education system in the nation.

California also leads in sustainable facilities. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) reports 31 LEED-certified community college projects in the state, and that number is rapidly rising. When the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), for example, wraps up its $6 billion Sustainable Building Program in 2014, it anticipates that it will add 87 projects to that tally. Furthermore, in May, Butte College in Oroville, Calif., became the country’s first grid-positive college by producing more clean energy from on-site solar power than it consumes.

But all is not golden in California. Despite growing demand—enrollment has increased 44 percent over the past 15 years—the community college system shrunk by 4.8 percent between 2009 and 2010 due to state budget cuts. Over the same period, course reductions led the state to turn away 140,000 students, according to California Community College chancellor Jack Scott.

The predicament caused when demand exceeds resources extends beyond California, says Phyllis Grummon, director of planning and education at the Society for College and University Planning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Though she cites Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system as an exception, Grummon says that many states, including Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Nevada, are struggling with reduced resources.

“Higher education benefits by recessions,” she says. “More people want to attend, but access is the problem. Not everyone can get in, and those enrolled can’t always [graduate] when they want to.”

According to the AACC, enrollment isn’t the economy’s only casualty. Though the organization reports that community colleges are the fastest-growing segment of higher education, budgetary stress has put pressure on capital expenditures.

With many campuses completed during the 1960s and ’70s, the nation’s community colleges are in need of facility renovations and upgrades. But from Oregon to Florida, schools are putting off projects.

“I don’t know of any community college that doesn’t have deferred maintenance right now,” says Grummon—who adds that it’s easier to get a new building than to maintain an existing facility.

Accounting 101

One boost for facility renovation and modernization came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009, which included $53.6 billion in state fiscal-stabilization funds. But subsequent legislation, such as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 (SAFRA), failed to live up to expectations. When passed by the House of Representatives in September 2009, SAFRA promised $2.5 billion in modernization funds for community college facilities. By the time it was included as part of the healthcare bill in March 2010, those funds had been stripped from the legislation.

Other financing mechanisms, such as general-fund apportionments, state and local bonds, and property taxes, vary by region. “It depends on an area’s local and state funding policies and how much the state values community colleges,” Grummon says.

A recent study suggests that some communities could value them a little more. A September 2010 report from the AACC found that despite the fact that community colleges educated 43 percent of the nation’s undergraduate students in the 2007–08 academic year, they received just 27 percent of total federal, state, and local revenues for public degree-granting institutions over the same period.

Some districts have tried to close the gap by raising student fees, but even that doesn’t guarantee increased resources. California, for example, recently raised student fees by $10 per unit—a move expected to generate $110 million in resources for community colleges. But the state concurrently slashed $400 million in general-fund support, leaving California community colleges with a net base reduction of $290 million for the 2011–12 academic year.

Similar balancing acts are being tested at community colleges across the country. In Flint, Mich., Mott Community College recently raised tuition to compensate for flat state aid and reduced projected property tax revenue, while the Community College System of New Hampshire recently approved a 7.7 percent tuition hike following a severe drop in state funding.

Steve Ngo, a San Francisco–based attorney and member of the San Francisco Community College District Board of Trustees, says that acquiring funds specifically for the physical build-out of space is a complicated process. “We can seek non-state funding, including bonds and private money; we can ask the state to pay for it [through statewide bond propositions]; or we can use a combination of the two, which is most likely,” he says.

Schools that do find themselves in the position to fund a new facility at the same time that they face pressure to enact layoffs may encounter scrutiny, Grummon says.

“Funds that support people and buildings are different,” she says.