As a young girl, Leah Royal was terrified of the dentist.

She still has vivid memories of his talking in what seemed like a different language, referencing a number from a medical chart that made her think 27 teeth had to go. But then she met the dental hygienist, whom she remembers as an advocate and translator.

“They would distract me and narrate what they were doing, which helped my 8-year-old self calm down,” said Royal, 27. “I told my mom [that] I want to be one of those nice ladies with the tools.”

Now, she’s studying to do just that, as one of 24 first-year students at Shoreline Community College’s popular dental hygiene program. But even before the Class of 2021 finished the first quarter, Royal and her peers learned their program is in jeopardy.

Facing a nearly $2 million budget shortfall, college administrators have begun a program-by-program review to decide which they will cut. The dental hygiene program, according to its director, is the most expensive on campus, giving some faculty members reason to worry the college will just eliminate it entirely.

The college also recently announced that despite receiving $39.6 million from the state to build a new home for the dental hygiene program, it had removed the program from designs for that building. And it’s scrambling to figure out where to relocate the program once its current classrooms and dental clinic are demolished as scheduled next July.

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Even if the program ultimately shutters, the college still must provide instruction for the currently enrolled students. Across Washington, students can find other dental hygiene programs at nine colleges or universities.

To fight for their program, Royal and her peers surveyed the Class of 2021 and found 54% are the first in their family to go to college. About 92% quit full-time jobs to enroll at Shoreline, and more than half commute at least two hours to attend classes.

“It’s extremely stressful,” Royal said. “All of us quit full-time jobs to be in this program, and the majority of us lost our health care because of it. We can’t just expect to get those jobs back if we no longer have a school to attend.”

The Shoreline program attracts about 120 applicants each year but accepts just 24. The college has boasted of its appeal to people who live outside the region.

For individuals interested in the dental field, but who might not have the money or commitment necessary to become a dentist, the two-year program at Shoreline offers a quicker route to a high-paying job. In 2018, the median salary for dental hygienists reached nearly $75,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In a campus budget update this month, Shoreline Community College President Cheryl Roberts said every program, including dental hygiene, remains under consideration for cuts. The college also may just trim specific courses, she said.

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“We may do a little bit of both — we’re not quite sure yet — to get a balanced budget,” Roberts said. “It’s a puzzle.”

Meanwhile, Rosie Bellert, director of the dental hygiene program, worried some instructors may look for new jobs and leave before students can graduate, as the school figures out its financial situation.

“It’s like living in limbo,” Bellert said. “You just don’t know what’s coming.”

For years, the college has struggled with spending more than it brings in. Roberts and her administration have blamed declining enrollment for the current financial woes.

Nationally, about 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college this fall than a year ago — the eighth consecutive year of declines — according to new numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse. Experts point to the strong economy and labor market, which in part gives workers a reason not to seek new skills or degrees.

At Shoreline, the college has a total operating budget of about $46.7 million and has seen enrollment drop 2% so far this academic year, on top of a 7% decline last year. That’s driving the decrease in revenues for the college, even as its expenses keep rising — which administrators blame largely on compensation hikes and faculty blame on a bloated administration.

Roberts plans to deliver a 2020-21 budget, with proposed cuts, to the board of trustees next month.

“We’re looking at every option to minimize a reduction of force,” she said of potential layoffs. Still, “80% of our budget is people.”

Separately, the college soon plans to demolish the classroom building that currently houses the dental hygiene program and its dental clinic. Students work there during the school year, practicing exams on each other and treating about 2,600 low-income patients from the community.

The college originally planned to relocate both the program and its clinic in a new Allied Health, Science & Manufacturing building, which would also provide laboratory and classroom space for biology, chemistry, engineering and other programs. But escalating construction costs prompted the college to reduce that building’s planned footprint by 19,000 square feet, leaving no room for dental hygiene.

“The college is actively pursuing both short- and long-term solutions, on and off campus, for the dental hygiene program,” a spokeswoman said in an email, adding that it remains unclear whether the clinic will be part of that relocation.

The situation has caught the attention of several lawmakers, who last year provided nearly $40 million for the college for the new building.

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In a letter sent this month, Democratic state Sen. Jesse Salomon and Democratic Reps. Cindy Ryu and Lauren Davis, whose 32nd Legislative District includes Shoreline, asked the board of trustees to find a solution that allows the dental hygiene program and clinic to remain open.

“The need for dental hygienists in our state is at an all-time high,” they wrote, estimating just one year of graduates from the program could see about 18,000 patients every six months.

“Losing a class of 24 students has a far-reaching impact on dentistry in our state,” the lawmakers added.