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Declining enrollment may follow faculty cuts

Yesterday, I wrote about community colleges in Oregon, New York, and Pennsylvania that are struggling with shifting funding models, declining enrollment, and challenges with maintaining instructional staff. Among these challenges, maintaining the right instructional staff is likely to be the most critical.

Full-time faculty members develop courses and programs. While community colleges have depended heavily on adjunct faculty members to deliver instruction to reduce their overall costs, these part-time instructors do not develop new coursework. When a community college offers fewer new courses and fewer programs, it becomes a less attractive economic development resource. It also offers a less viable pathway to living wage employment for students. Hyperfocus on the cost of instruction without considering the economic benefit of new courses and programs likely plays a role in the declining enrollment at community colleges nationwide.

Recruiting and retaining qualified faculty members is a significant challenge, especially in this employment environment. Qualified instructors – especially those who teach in occupational programs – can make more money by working in their industries than they can by teaching at a community college.

It doesn’t help when administrators at a community college focus more closely on the cost of these educators than on what they bring to the equation. There is a clear connection between the size of the full-time faculty and the size of the enrollment.

Declining enrollment is a sign of having less to offer

WCC’s full-time headcount (which includes instructional staff) was most recently reported at 496 for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The full-time instructional staff was reported at 155 and the full-time non-instructional staff was reported at 341.

At the start of the pandemic, WCC’s full-time headcount was reported at 533 in FY2020. Of that, 166 individuals were classified as full-time instructors, and 367 were classified as full-time non-instructional staff. On the surface that represents a decline in WCC’s full-time staff of about 7% between FY2020 and FY2022.

When you look at where the losses occurred, the details become a little clearer. The size of the instructional staff declined by 6.6%, and the size of the non-instructional staff (which includes all management occupations) decreased by 7%.

The size of the management staff at WCC in FY 2020 was 106. In FY2022, the size of the management staff was 106. So, the declines in the sizes of WCC’s full-time staff during the pandemic came from the instructional staff (which represents institutional capacity) and the non-instructional, non-managerial staff. For some reason, WCC now needs the same number of managerial positions to manage fewer instructional staff, fewer non-instructional staff, and fewer students.

It’s very clear that the WCC administration is fully committed to self-preservation at the expense of instruction and services that benefit the students. Financially, WCC relies on annual growth of county property tax revenues to cover the increasing cost of administrative overhead and the expenses associated with poor financial decisions like building and operating the Health and Fitness Center. Additionally, it delays necessary maintenance and capital improvements related to the facilities to make more money available to the General Fund without needing to soak the students with tuition increases.

Inflation works against faculty retention

That strategy relies on consistently low inflation rates – which we’re currently not experiencing. Rising inflation has triggered the cap of 5% on property tax collections in Michigan. Meanwhile, inflation soldiers on. The impact of rising inflation and artificially restrained property tax collections will apply pressure to the General Fund. The General Fund is already suffering from the Health and Fitness Center’s increasing bond debt and reduced income, which is not large enough to offset that. Additionally, contracts like the Ellucian agreement – which include large annual cost increases make additional demands on the General Fund.

Further, the need to replace the sanitary sewer system and the Administration’s request to increase tuition and fees by $5 per credit hour have demonstrated that the General Fund is not robust enough to tolerate current events.

Just as inflation affects expenses, it also affects salaries. The average salary in management occupations at WCC paid 6.6% less in FY 2021 than it did in 2013, when adjusted for inflation. The average instructional salary in 2021 paid about 1.75% less than it was in 2013. In the current environment, the loss in faculty compensation is more like 4.3%.

Deciding where to cut

When the cuts come – and they will come – the Board of Trustees should direct the Administration to look inward first when it comes to choosing where it will make reductions. The faculty union should be vigilant regarding cuts to programs and full-time staffing. Since the arrival of the current administration, the size of the full-time faculty and the size of the FTE student body both declined by nearly 25%, while the size of the non-instructional staff has declined by only 11.5%. Meanwhile, the number of people in management occupations at the college has increased by nearly 13% from FY2013 (the first year the federal government collected discrete employment classification information) to FY2022.

For those who might argue that the decline in the size of the full-time faculty mirrors the decline in the number of students, I would suggest that the decline in the number of students is in part attributable to the decline in the size of the full-time faculty. Full-time faculty members are responsible for course and program development. Fewer full-time faculty members mean fewer courses and programs, which attract fewer students.

Photo Credit: Jonty, via Flickr