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The best route for moving up is in danger of being blocked

A failure to invest sufficiently in public colleges hindered the economic recovery from the Great Recession a decade ago. Let's not make that mistake again.

Olivia Cohea’s forestry class examined an increment borer in the field last fall.
Olivia Cohea’s forestry class examined an increment borer in the field last fall.Brandt Vicknair

WINNFIELD, La. — “Campus” is a fancy word for the single-story arcaded building, in a little town wrapped in pine and hardwood forest, where Olivia Cohea found her path to a better life. A young woman whose family was crushed by addiction, Cohea heard from adults in her life — even a high school teacher — that she wasn’t good at school, that she would never make anything of herself.

After dropping out of high school, checking herself into a boot camp for struggling youth, and trying to join the Army, Cohea ended up here, looking for her high school equivalency diploma. Within months, even before she earned that diploma, she became a scholarship-winning, “A” student on her way to a college credential in forestry.

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This campus, two doors down from a Walmart on a four-lane highway dominated by timber trucks, is part of one of the newest community colleges in the United States. The story of Central Louisiana Technical Community College (CLTCC), created in 2012, illustrates how better college opportunities can improve lives in rural America. But it also reveals the flip side of the coin: Much harm is inflicted when higher education is starved for funding.

CLTCC thus offers a cautionary tale with urgent relevance today, as Congress weighs how vigorously to support higher education in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic toll. The specifics will differ from place to place, but a failure to protect the best avenue to social mobility we have in this country will come at a steep cost to our collective future.

As I write in a new report from the Center for American Progress, devastating state budget cuts after the Great Recession have limited this young community college to offering shorter-term credentials, such as Cohea’s forestry program. It can’t offer most programs for a two-year associate’s degree — the building block of a bachelor’s degree and also the degree needed to, for example, become a registered nurse in a region hurting for health care workers. And what CLTCC has accomplished is fragile. Without protection from the ravages of the pandemic, the campus where Cohea studies could easily be shuttered in the next few years.

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Colleges are facing revenue losses that dwarf the funding they received from the Cares Act. The University of North Carolina is preparing for budget cuts as dire as 25 to 50 percent. Venerable public institutions such as the University of Michigan and University of Texas are laying off faculty, if not yet at their flagship campuses.

This is only the beginning. Almost every state is required by law to pass a balanced budget, and assuming the recession lingers, state revenues are likely to be worse next year and depressed for several years to come. That means, absent help from Congress, damaging budget cuts are a near certainty. Groups such as mine have called for at least $46 billion for public higher education in the stimulus bill being hammered out now, significantly higher than what Congress is negotiating over.

Before it’s too late, let’s learn from the mistakes this country made during and after the Great Recession. Louisiana slashed 40 percent of its higher education funding, second worst in the United States after Arizona, but disinvestment was a national phenomenon. Only seven states are spending as much per student as they were before the recession, so the system is already greatly weakened. (Massachusetts is among the great majority still spending below pre-recession levels.)

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The reason that higher education is an irresistible pressure valve for squeezed state budgets is simple: C Colleges can raise tuition. The public has woken up to some extent to the damage that comes from mounting tuition bills, namely the student debt crisis. This is a serious obstacle to students’ success, but it’s just one of many problems that arise when government support wanes. To see what happens when governments starve their education systems, you might have to look for symptoms of long-deferred maintenance such as flooded libraries, mold-infested classrooms, and other stories that have emerged from Louisiana’s public colleges.

Then there are the things that didn’t happen: the professors who couldn’t be recruited, the advising department that might have otherwise been expanded, the financial aid that could have been offered.

Olivia Cohea greeted a customer in 2019 at the Saline Lake Outpost, where she worked while attending college in Winnfield, La.
Olivia Cohea greeted a customer in 2019 at the Saline Lake Outpost, where she worked while attending college in Winnfield, La.Brandt Vicknair

Cuts in state appropriations translate into fewer students earning degrees, especially at community colleges that are the gateway to opportunity for a large share of low-income students, students of color, working adults with their own children — and anyone who needs a second chance, as Cohea did.

These are not distant concerns. The Globe reported recently that in 2001, Bunker Hill Community College got two-thirds of its budget from the state and a third from tuition. Today, that ratio has flipped. And Massachusetts has community college completion rates worse than 24 other states.

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I VISITED CENTRAL Louisiana last summer to see what it looks like to try to raise college attainment in rural America, which is home to a fifth of the US population but only 8 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees. This region, centered around the small city of Alexandria, is only a couple hours from Baton Rouge, but a world away, with hundreds of thousands of acres of pine and hardwood forest and glittering fields of corn and soybeans.

I saw the big difference that small policy tweaks can make — such as allowing someone like Cohea to take college classes without a high school diploma. And I was especially struck by the influence of local civic leaders. In a high-poverty community, where many people in search of good pay typically travel to jobs on offshore oil fields, leaders of a local foundation, local politicians, and an economic development agency saw better access to higher education as essential for people’s health and the region’s economic vitality. They deftly cajoled the state into creating a community college for one of the largest regions of the country without one.

People rarely think of higher education as a local matter, but local leadership can make a difference. Kalamazoo, Mich., pioneered the idea of a free “college promise” program. New York City funded a program that has doubled community college graduation rates and influenced reform efforts around the country.

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The power of state support for higher education — and what happens without enough of it — is also clear in central Louisiana.

At its inception, CLTCC was little more than a name change for a network of vocational-technical facilities throughout the region. Turning that network into a comprehensive community college required CLTCC to create associate’s degree programs. But to offer associate’s degrees that qualify for federal financial aid, it needed a different accreditation from what the technical schools already had.

Getting that stamp of approval is an arduous, years-long process. Officials initially thought they would be approved between 2016 and 2018. But accreditation required upgrades such as hiring librarians, subscribing to scholarly databases, and bringing on a few additional administrators, all of which was impossible when the college was making layoffs and scraping by. It wasn’t until last year that the state set aside $1 million in funding for the accreditation bid.

Thanks to CLTCC’s creation, there are hundreds more people earning short-term credentials in the region each year. Millions in federal, state, and local grants have funded career training, manufacturing programs, and the construction of a new flagship building.

But the toll of lackluster investment remains clear. In 2018, CLTCC awarded just 21 associate’s degrees. In a rural community where an entry-level registered nurse can earn $23 an hour, CLTCC is limited to training licensed practical nurses, who earn closer to $14 an hour.

The college now expects to be accredited in 2022 or 2023 — as many as seven years later than initially hoped — if it is spared budget cuts in the wake of the pandemic. Otherwise, the timeline is likely to be longer yet.

A parking lot under construction in 2019 at the new Alexandria campus of Central Louisiana Technical Community College.
A parking lot under construction in 2019 at the new Alexandria campus of Central Louisiana Technical Community College.Brandt Vicknair

THE ANSWER TO an upheaval on the scale of the pandemic is to think bigger, as America answered the Great Depression with the New Deal or absorbed returning veterans from World War II with the first GI Bill. Central Louisiana, like much of America, has suffered the damage that came from thinking smaller after the Great Recession.

To avoid disastrous cuts to higher education as state tax revenues crater, Congress must support states in funding public higher education. It also should require, as a condition of receiving the money, that they restore their own state funding as soon as their budgets recover.

Right now, limiting the damage of the pandemic seems ambitious enough. But this country could do far more. There are plans out there in Congress and from organizations like mine for restoring public higher education to its full power as an engine of the American Dream, which would take a partnership of the federal government and states, both sides willing to invest more money and demand better results.

Thanks to federal aid, Louisiana recently passed a budget that did minimal damage to higher education, but we have to remember that cuts here came not during, but after, the Great Recession. The survival of small, rural campuses like the one in Winnfield are at the top of everyone’s list of worries.

Olivia Cohea is fortunate that her forestry program leads to good jobs even with a credential short of an associate’s degree. She dreams about working for the US Forest Service, traveling the country, and seeing mountains and the ocean for the first time. She wants to make a good life for herself.

“Nobody in my family’s ever graduated from college. My parents didn’t raise me,” she told me. “So, I want to be able to say, ‘I did what you said I never would be able to do. I’m making something of myself.’”

What happens next in Washington may determine if Cohea’s success is the beginning of something bigger for her region.

Marcella Bombardieri, a former reporter on the Globe’s Spotlight team, is associate director for higher education at the Center for American Progress. Her report on central Louisiana is available at americanprogress.org.