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News Opinion Editorial

The lesson of college cutbacks

There is a certain irony that public institutions with "community" in their very name are taking steps that, at least at first glance, seem unhelpful to the broader society. Maryland's community colleges are now in the process of limiting the work hours of some part-time adjunct faculty, in part, to avoid having to extend health care insurance to them under the Affordable Care Act.

Under the ACA, employees who work 30 hours or more per week must be offered health insurance coverage by 2015 or the employer faces a penalty. That any employer might choose to skirt this requirement is unfortunate, that two-year colleges financed primarily by taxpayer dollars are choosing to do so makes it even worse.

Add to this the poor performance of the federal health insurance exchange web site and the growing number of complaints of individuals losing their health care coverage — many because their existing policies do not meet the minimum standards of the ACA — and it's fair to say it's been a tough month for the reforms known as Obamacare. But, like many of these trends, there's much more to this than Obamacare opponents would care to point out.

Community colleges have long struggled with the issue of part-time faculty and their role on campus. Because 70 percent of students at Maryland's two-year colleges are there for continuing education — to take courses to achieve certification in some specialty, for instance — part-time faculty are a necessity.

But there is also a risk that part-timers may be used as a way for schools to lower salary and benefit costs, a trend that pre-exists the ACA, and worsened during the economy downturn as public funding for community colleges was frozen — and in some cases reduced. State law requires schools to have at least half their course load taught by full-time faculty, but it appears some were not in compliance.

One can sympathize with the challenge facing college presidents. Raise tuition and they stand to lose students who already collectively borrow millions each year to afford what should be Maryland's most affordable colleges. How many adjunct may be losing hours as a result of these cutbacks isn't clear, but the colleges' initial estimate that adding health care coverage might cost them $17 million annually seems doubtful at best.

In reality, a lot of part-time faculty already have full-time jobs elsewhere or other health care coverage (from a spouse perhaps). And small colleges don't appear to have been affected at all, only those in urban areas with larger student bodies. Nor do any current adjunct faculty members stand to lose existing health insurance coverage from a school as a result of a reduction in hours, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

The real issue here is not the ACA but the funding of community colleges in Maryland. Under Maryland's John A. Cade Funding Formula, schools are supposed to be financed equally by state government, local government and tuition. Because of government cutbacks, state aid is running at about 20 percent of the overall budget, local government less than 30 percent and tuition a whopping half of the cost.

This year, the state raised its contribution by 7 percent (or about $13.8 million) but that still falls far short of where it should be relative to tuition. At the current pace, the state will not meet its Cade obligation until 2023. Small wonder schools are strapped for cash.

Community colleges don't have the political clout of their four-year peers or K-12 public education but they provide instruction to an estimated half-million Marylanders each year. Their value to the business community and economy is immense. But if schools can't afford to pay instructors a reasonable wage or benefits comparable to what they might earn in the private sector, the quality of education is likely to suffer.

Don't blame the ACA or college leadership for the fact that two-year schools in Maryland and elsewhere find themselves between a rock and a hard place. But you can point a finger at government's failure to support those institutions adequately.

One suspects college presidents aren't pleased to be cutting back hours for part-time instructors who already earn modest wages. They probably realize the importance of providing health insurance. But community colleges don't have the luxury of wealthy alumni contributors and billion-dollar endowments nor can they charge their students tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. The cutbacks on adjunct hours are merely the latest symptom of government's failure to properly support two-year schools as they have most other forms of public education.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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