MONTGOMERY, Ala.—Economic woes and education belt-tightening have forced dozens of two-year colleges to cut or suspend teams and even entire athletic programs in the past couple of years.
"It is really hard," said Chelsea Collins, a recent graduate of Woodville (Ala.) High School. "It's my big wake-up call to realize what's going on in the world and how the economy is."
Collins committed to play softball for Jefferson State Community College last summer with designs on eventually landing a scholarship at a four-year institution. Then the Birmingham school cut the program, so she signed with Northwest-Shoals Community College -- which dropped sports altogether a few weeks later.
In California, about 40 teams have been dropped or suspended in the past two years, said Carlyle Carter, executive director of the California Community College Athletic Association. Carter said other schools aborted plans to drop a women's sport because of concerns about complying with Title IX.
Mississippi community colleges have dropped 10 teams, and a system in St. Louis has more than halved its number by consolidating among the three schools that have sports.
The Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, which oversees 35 community college programs in Washington and Oregon, has had one school drop men's and women's tennis, another the golf teams and a third volleyball and golf, executive director Dick McClain said.
Members also reduced schedules by 10 percent three years ago. McClain said the effects of budget cuts have been minimized because those schools fund athletics mostly through student fees.
"I think we've done a pretty good job as a league trying to be aware that things are probably significantly more challenging than any other time in the last 25 years or so," he said.
The largest group representing junior colleges, the National Junior College Athletic Association, has been notified that six of its 517 members have dropped sports or programs, executive director Mary Ellen Leicht said.
"By and large, though, we have seen budget cutbacks rather than the elimination of athletics," Leicht said in an email. "As we move through these rather uncertain financial times I expect there will continue to be a nationwide concern over the funding of sports at the two-year college level.
"However, the future is not all doom and gloom. The NJCAA continues to have conversations with colleges looking to add athletics as many administrators feels sports are a way to attract and retain students to their institution."
Three of Mississippi's 15 junior colleges have dropped teams.
James Southward, director of affiliated activities for the Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said his group has urged such cost-cutting methods as limiting scrimmages and the amount of time student-athletes have to be on campus before class starts.
He also said the schools have aimed to drum up money from booster clubs, alumni and fundraisers.
All but one of those Mississippi two-year schools has a football program, enabling them to mostly compete within the state and keep travel costs down in the most costly sport.
"Sports does play an important role in our community colleges in the state of Mississippi, not only giving our kids an opportunity to have some school and move onto four-year colleges," Southward said. "It brings other students in. A lot of students still want that experience of going to a ballgame that they would have at a senior college."
St. Louis Community College has consolidated sports among its three campuses that have athletic programs (out of four), reducing the number of teams from 15 to seven after two-year schools absorbed a 7 percent reduction in state aid.
That cuts in half the number of athletes participating from about 290 -- and saves the schools about $685,000 annually, said DeLancey Smith, the St. Louis Community College director of communications.
In Alabama alone, Northwest-Shoals and Bevill State announced in March that they would drop athletics starting in the fall. Jefferson State axed softball and baseball and Gadsden State cut four of its six varsity sports.
Students get to keep their scholarships even if they're not still participating in sport.
"A lot of those (four-year) colleges have significant TV contracts, they have significantly alumni support, they have ticket sales, all those things," Smith said. "All of which we don't have. It comes from operating funds."
Al Cox, commissioner of the Alabama Community College Conference, said a recent study found that 79 percent of the athletes graduating from the state's two-year colleges went on to compete at four-year schools. He said 85-90 percent continued their education.
Now, some have had a stepping stone pulled from beneath them.
"Those are kids that may not even give college a chance. I hate it for them," Cox said. "There are those that have financial needs that can't afford to go away to a four-year school somewhere. They can stay at a two-year college close to them. Those slots are gone."
Collins is landing on her feet. The pitcher/infielder plans to play for Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., which has already filled its scholarship allotment for softball, with help from some scholarship money for academics.
Northwest-Shoals women's basketball player Amanda Henson doesn't think she'd have the grades or money for a four-year university. Her father is studying for a paramedic's license at the school, and her mother never graduated high school.
"Basketball is pretty much putting me through school," said Henson, who has signed with Dyersburg State in Tennessee. "If I didn't have basketball, I would not be in college right now. I'd probably be flipping burgers at
Her coach, Kristy Ward, said four of the team's 10 freshmen have signed scholarships and three, including Henson, are moving significantly further from home. The experience has prompted Ward to write her doctoral thesis on the effects of cutting athletics at two-year schools.
The reaction to the news when she and the baseball coach informed their players of the decision was an emotional start.
"It was complete devastation, it was chaos," said Ward. "It was anger. The kids were crying. I've never seen anything like it in 16 years."