A drop in enrollment at Grays Harbor College has led to a loss of state funding, resulting in a round of layoffs as the college tries to right itself financially.
Facing a budget shortfall of $1.6 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year, the college’s board of trustees Tuesday passed a budget that anticipates a $309,000 shortfall, although Interim Vice President for Administrative Services Barbara McCullough told the board it would be balanced by the end of 2019.
“The plan is to have a balanced budget by the end of fall quarter, after working with the faculty union on resolution of the elimination of three faculty positions, and ending the Certified Drivers License program which will convert to a self-supporting program,” said McCullough in a report to the board.
“We have an enrollment target we are supposed to hit and we haven’t hit it for years and years and years,” said Grays Harbor College President Dr. Jim Minkler.
State funding is based on the number of students. As enrollment drops, funding decreases proportionately.
Grays Harbor College isn’t the only school of its type facing financial challenges.
“There was one college that met their enrollment target this year,” said Minkler. That left Grays Harbor College among the 33 that didn’t. “Everybody else is down in enrollment, and some faced a big drop-off from last year to this year and have had to make cuts.”
The unfortunate reality is, when the economy improves and unemployment is down, as it has been in the county for several years, enrollment at community and technical colleges goes down because people are already earning livable wages.
Personnel cuts came shortly after the college graduated its largest class in school history in late June.
“We had to lay off 11 full-time positions,” said Minkler, “which for a college our size is big. I would call them essential positions. They hurt. These were positions that were important to us to support our students and what we do.”
The layoffs affected all three categories of college employees: Certificated faculty, exempt positions such as administrators and classified employees. Classified employees include those who tend the campus grounds, custodial staff, kitchen staff and student support services, said Minkler.
In total, according to McCullough’s report to the board of trustees, eight exempt positions, seven classified and six faculty positions “were either eliminated, combined, delayed in hiring or reduced in hours. Other part-time positions were eliminated or reduced in hours as well.”
“Fortunately, we had a couple of voluntary resignations, people who said, ‘I’ll step up if there are some things I can do to help,’ but it’s still a painful process,” said Minkler. “When somebody is doing a great job and they are low in seniority and we have to make some cuts, we see some highly productive people no longer at the institution, which hurts the morale of the whole college.”
Minkler said if the college had been making staffing cuts in response to dropping enrollment rates over the past five years the college would not have had to dip into its reserves or make the staffing cuts all at once.
“In our situation, we were kind of flat last year to this year (in enrollment). We didn’t lose, but we didn’t grow,” said Minkler. “With colleges, what you should do, and colleges are known to be nimble, when enrollment is down you cut and when it’s up you increase staffing.”
“We over-projected what our tuition coming in would be,” continued Minkler. “If we’d made adjustments each year we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in.”
With recent additions of a 4-year bachelor of applied sciences degree, it was thought the decline in registrations for more traditional community college classes could be absorbed.
“The return on investment feasibility study we launched, I’m happy to say our projections were pretty much what we had hoped for the 4-year courses,” said Minkler. Funding is also elevated for students taking 4-year courses. “We get more money when we offer those (300 and 400-level courses) but we did have to spend more on staffing.”
The college has three programs for 4-year Bachelor of Applied Science degrees: Organizational Management, Forest Resources Management and Teacher Education. The 2019 graduating class had the first-ever diplomas awarded, five in Forest Resources Management and 21 in Teacher Education.
The problem worsened as enrollment for “traditional academic transfer courses, the courses students take and transfer to 4-year universities, we had a big decrease in that enrollment we weren’t anticipating,” said Minkler. There was also a “big decrease” in GED courses, English language learning, High School 21 classes. “We ended up over-projecting our revenue because of the decreases in those areas.”
In April, a panel of evaluators under the direction of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities visited Grays Harbor College “to conduct a mission fulfillment and sustainability evaluation.”
“Recommendation one was to have a realistic forecast” of enrollment and budget, said Minkler. “We were doing optimistic forecasting, not realistic.”
A team of evaluators from Northwest colleges were on campus April 17-19 to develop their evaluation. Overall, the report was very favorable to the college, especially in terms of what students thought about their education and experience on campus and their review of their instructors. But when it came to budget forecasting, dissemination of information regarding the budget, and reacting to budgetary issues the college had more work to do.
“It’s serious, and we’re taking (the recommendation) seriously,” Minkler said he told the commission in person at a late June meeting. “I explained to them the plan to have a balanced budget. We have streamlined ourselves to make ourselves more efficient and we have got a plan in place for a balanced budget.”
The school scheduled college-wide meetings to come up with ideas to be more efficient while considering student experience, success and service to the community.
“What we are cutting should not remove educational access for students,” said Minkler. “But one thing we can’t do is keep scheduling courses that lose money because of low enrollment.”
Minkler said looking back at classes over time, some perhaps should have been cancelled, “but we wanted to run them to provide as much access as possible. What you don’t want to do when you reduce operations is eliminate areas where enrollment can grow again.”
That includes mitigating job loss. “It’s impossible to eliminate it,” said Minkler, but do so in a way to stay true to college values, and keep access to students as open as possible, respect the diversity of the college’s offerings, and be effective with the resources the college has.
The “easy way,” said Minkler, to address the budget deficit would be to close one of the satellite campuses: The Riverview Education Center in Raymond and the Columbia Education Center in Ilwaco. But that would cut into student opportunity and the college’s outreach throughout the community it serves, said Minkler.
“Once we do that we are no longer serving the community,” he said. “If demand is there we are not going to be able to get rid of the facility, even if we have to limit and be more efficient in what we offer there. We still need to keep operations going to where we can ramp them up again if enrollments improve.”
The college’s Commercial Drivers License (CDL) program is an example of how the school is trying to balance course offerings and its budget.
“We were really offering the course in an expensive way,” said Minkler. “So we are putting it more on the self-support model.”
The college’s fleet of trucks will be cut from six to four, and some additional parts of the program, like forklift training, will be cut. The result is intended to be “a leaner, more efficient” program where students will “get their certification with less money and time” spent in the program, according to Minkler. The college can then adjust program staffing and other resources to directly meet the demand for the course quarterly.
The college must also continue to provide the services needed by Associate degree seekers looking to transfer to a four-year institution.
“Even though we offer four-year degrees now we are still committed to the community college mission,” said Minkler. “As the economy and jobs change we need to be able to change and grow with that. In a situation where we have to cut the budget, we still need to think about new programs to develop to meet community needs, to position the community for growth and development.”
The college has been working on its improvement plan which includes improving communications between departments, the college’s board of trustees and administration on budget related issue.
“One thing the board indicated is they want quarterly reports that keep them apprised of just how they are doing between revenue and expenditures, just like every other board would want,” said Minkler. That’s something that’s standard “but we kind of fell off last year.”
Included in the commission report was the need for middle level managers, like instructional and associate deans, student services personnel and department directors to be able to look over their own budgets and programs regularly so they can actively participate in their own budget planning.
“It’s kind of a situation where we had a tool in place but it wasn’t working as well as it should, so we’re going to focus on making sure our deans have the information they need to be held accountable to their budgets,” said Minkler, and to insure communications between all facets of the college.
Bottom line, Minkler said the college is committed to the recommendations of the commission and to the large amount of input given by its own personnel.
“We’re going to closely monitor our budgets,” said Minkler, who added that some actions taken by the Legislature during the past session indicate “our funding model will be a little bit better next year.”
As for getting more enrollees, “Let’s just hope it’s not a bad economy that increases enrollment.”