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Community colleges turn to faculty layoffs to balance budgets

A growing number of community colleges are turning to faculty layoffs to balance their budgets. Earlier this month, Trustees of the City College of San Francisco voted to lay off 38 full-time faculty members to address the school’s long-standing budget crisis.

Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, OR also plans to lay off full-time faculty and close programs to address a $1M budget shortfall. Administrators and faculty union representatives negotiated throughout May, but could not reach agreement on proposed cuts. At the heart of the issue is the faculty layoffs – which have been reduced from 10 to 2 – and the administration’s plan to hire two new administrators. According to BMCC president Mark Browning, the two new administrative positions are absolutely necessary. They include a new marketing staff member and a data analyst.

Regarding the marketing position, Browning said, “How are we going to get more students without letting them know what we have to offer?”

Browning’s rationale assumes that prospective students aren’t enrolling simply because they are unaware of BMCC’s presence in their community. That seems highly unlikely. If you accept Browning’s justification for hiring yet-another-administrator, you also need to consider is who’s going to teach the students that his marketing hire will attract.

Further, if the marketing hire is responsible for boosting enrollment and fails, is the marketing hire going to get laid off?

(Spoiler alert:….)

Community colleges don’t have a marketing problem. Would be students are quite aware of what their community college has to offer. They have a value problem. The value of a community college degree has been in decline for years. Spending the time and effort to earn a two-year degree that will increase your income by a few thousand dollars per year isn’t worth it.

Faculty layoffs can’t cure a bad spending habit.

The trend toward offering short-term certificates (that literally return no value) comes at a steep cost.

First, academic programs that train people for low-wage jobs actually make the school less attractive. It’s not enough to describe an occupation as “high-demand.” Quite possibly, the “demand” for employees reflects nothing more than the employer’s unwillingness to pay a living wage.
Second, if – as community college administrators love to insist – students really want short-term certificates, community colleges better get used to having fewer students on campus. (Shorter programs with fewer credits equals fewer students and less tuition revenue. The math is deceptively simple here.)

If this is the strategy going forward, the cost of a community college education must rise precipitously to cover the college’s fixed costs. (That is, if the college expect to keep all its administrators on the payroll.) If the college can’t increase income and wants to reduce its personnel costs, the best way to do that is to reduce the size of the administration.

A better solution for BMCC (and any community college that has an unrestrained administrative hiring habit) is to permanently fix the size of the administration. When an administrator absolutely “needs” to hire a person or two, the administrator can draw from the pool of administrative vacancies. Should no administrative vacancies exist, the administration must either forgo the hires, or create vacancies by eliminating the requisite number of filled positions.

Alternately, the college can tie the size of the administration to enrollment. If enrollment increases, the college could hire more administrators. If the enrollment falls, just as it can use faculty layoffs, it can also lay off administrators.

Photo Credit: Chris Devers, via Flickr