A Ranger County sign
A Ranger County sign - 
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Kai Ryssdal: I'm not sure we actually needed a think tank to tell us this, but state budgets are in a really bad place. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said today 44 states and the District of Columbia will be in the red next year. And they face daunting challenges in balancing their books.

Lawmakers in Texas are struggling to close a budget gap of as much as $27 billion. Raising taxes there's about as politically appealing as a ban on BBQ. That means hard looks at just about everything.

One proposal would eliminate four state community colleges, all four of which happen to be in rural areas without much access to higher education. Nathan Bernier from KUT reports.

Don Bostic: So, come on in.

Nathan Bernier: Ranger College Vice President Don Bostic is showing off their new nursing campus. It's located inside a mall and still has the original linoleum tile.

Bostic: This is the kitchen at Kmart. This is the vent hood that was for their grill where they made the burgers, so we use it for our chemistry.

The nursing school opened a year ago and it's already at capacity. It's one of Rangers' three campuses, and for some of 1,600 students, it's the only college within an hour's drive. If state lawmakers have their way and close this college -- and others serving rural communities -- whole populations might be isolated from higher ed.

Bostic: I can't tell you how many non-traditional students come here. I mean guys that have been working on the line somewhere. Housewives, single moms -- and they've come here to chase their dream. Without this door here, that they could knock on and come through, there's no opportunity to take their shot.

But Ranger is more than a college in this part of small town Texas.

Lefty Frizzell's song "Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy"

Country music plays on the stereo when you enter Cowboy Spirits Liquor Store in Ranger. The guy who owns this business is also the mayor. And Steve Gerdes is worried about the town's largest employer closing shop.

Steve Gerdes: You know, basically Ranger College is the only stimulus for the city of Ranger and the surrounding rural areas. You can just cut so much 'til you have nothing left.

Texas isn't like other states. There's no state income tax here. The budget is already fairly lean. So now that it's time to reduce it by $27 billion, there's not a whole lot left to cut. The Republican-dominated state legislature does not want to raise taxes and it's reluctant dip into the state's $9 billion emergency savings account, the rainy day fund. Some lawmakers say doing so would only delay tough decisions.

Bill Campion: Well, it really frustrating. People drive through Ranger and see that this is a town that's kind of not what it used to be because the oil has dried up in this area.

Bill Campion is the president of Ranger Community College. Since coming on board, he's opened the nursing school, he's almost doubled enrollment, and he's working with local high schools. But that doesn't matter to state budget writers looking to cut costs anywhere they can.

Campion: This is my fifth decade in being involved in college leadership, and as I told you in the beginning, hell's gonna sooner freeze over than this school is gonna close.

Republican House leaders have been hearing those concerns and they say they're listening. Another spending proposal would sprinkle the cuts across community colleges rather than single out four for closure.

But regardless of the outcome, community colleges threatened say the damage has already been done. It's a lot harder to convince a student to apply to your college when can't say for sure that it'll be open in the fall.

In Austin, Texas, I'm Nathan Bernier for Marketplace.

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