A new state formula will lead to cutbacks at Washington’s community colleges, as well as changes in the types of courses the schools will offer. Seattle Colleges has started eliminating jobs and courses.
Faced with declining enrollments and shrinking state funding, many of Washington’s community colleges will need to cut jobs and rethink the kinds of courses they offer, starting this fall.
Under a new state formula that determines, in part, how much colleges receive for what kinds of courses, a few colleges will get more state money, especially those that offer the kind of workforce training and basic education classes that the new formula favors. But many will get less.
The cuts come at a time when the national conversation centers on making community college tuition-free. In recent years, three states and dozens of communities have established some form of tuition-free community college — including, most recently, Oregon.
And yet, in Washington state, “We’re pulling the rug out from under all the community colleges with the current budget decisions,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, one of the sponsors of a bill last session that would have made community college tuition-free for some students in this state.
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The community college system received $1.37 billion from the Legislature this biennium — less than the $1.45 billion it got in 2007-09, said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
Because enrollment is shrinking slightly, down by about 1 percent systemwide this year, the amount per student that community colleges receive — not adjusted for inflation — has stayed the same. (Community-college enrollment is inversely related to the strength of the economy; when times are good, people work, and when the economy is bad, people return to school for more training.)
At the same time, the state Legislature has, starting two years ago, required the colleges to give raises to faculty and staff. Lawmakers didn’t fully fund the pay increase, “so the colleges have to eat some of that,” Brown said.
In addition, the colleges are on the hook for their share of a recently settled lawsuit over part-time employees’ health care that will cost an additional $13 million.
Brown expects colleges will take advantage of the incentives in the new funding formula by offering more high-demand workforce training and courses in basic skills. Those decisions will be made by each college individually, and because the funding process will be phased in over four years, the changes will happen slowly.
Some faculty fear the changes will come at the expense of liberal-arts classes, the kind that transfer students take on their way to a four-year degree. But college officials say those classes are being eliminated at some schools because demand is dropping.
The new way of distributing money to the colleges “wouldn’t be an issue if we were funded better by the state,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of Renton Technical College (RTC), one of the few colleges that will benefit from the new allocation system. “If there was a bigger pie, it wouldn’t be an issue of how we cut up the pie.”
The state’s technical colleges will do best under the new funding formula; Renton Tech, for example, will get a funding increase of about 5.7 percent. But most of that money — about $241,000 a year — will be eaten up by the salary increases to faculty and staff that weren’t funded by the Legislature.
After those figures are taken into account, Renton Tech will end up with an extra $30,000 a year, too little money to make much of an impact at a school that enrolled 10,160 students in 2014-15 — down from 11,675 in 2010-11.
For other schools, the funding formula means cuts. The four campuses that make up Seattle Colleges must cut $8 million over the next four years from a $125 million budget. Seattle Colleges has started eliminating jobs and course offerings as a result.
“The model is not Seattle-friendly — it’s one-size-fits-all,” said outgoing Seattle Colleges Chancellor Jill Wakefield, who is retiring at the end of this month.
The model also doesn’t take into account the high cost of living in Seattle, which means salaries and benefits must be higher here, too.
Green River College in Auburn must cut $4.5 million out of a $40 million budget over the next four years. The debate over how to do that has been clouded by a fight between former President Eileen Ely, who resigned earlier this month, and the unionized faculty, which three times voted they had no confidence in her leadership.
But the underlying problem remains: Green River’s budget is shrinking, and something will have to give.
At Seattle Central College (SCC), faculty members say cuts are expected in history, English literature, anthropology and psychology — “They’re kind of what we would think of as courses that make a complete education,” rather than skills training, said Jay McLean-Riggs, SCC Faculty Senate president.
McLean-Riggs says enrollment is dropping in those liberal-arts classes, but faculty members debate whether students are making those choices on their own, or if they’re “being directed that way by advisers who have job tracks on their minds.”
Richard Curtis, a former philosophy professor at Seattle Central, said community colleges were beefed up in the 1960s to provide more liberal-arts classes so they could serve as a steppingstone to a four-year degree. But now, with the focus on trades, Curtis said he feels like the college is going backward.
The colleges “used to be a vehicle for students who did not have the advantage of a good high school or stable environment to get a good start at education and make it into elite universities,” he said via email. “Now the community colleges will not even try to do that.”
In January 2015, President Obama proposed making community college free. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has also embraced tuition-free community college. However, a policy director for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump told Inside Higher Ed earlier this year that free community college would be “absurd” because “almost anyone can afford community college now.”
With the state Legislature under pressure from the state Supreme Court to fully fund K-12 education with the McCleary decision, Pollet, the House member from Seattle, doubts the free community college legislation will get anywhere in 2017.
“In Olympia, frankly, community colleges get no damned respect,” he said.
This story, originally published June 24, has been corrected. The story originally said the state Legislature didn’t fund raises for community-college faculty. In fact, lawmakers didn’t fully fund those raises.