Colleges brace for massive cuts

  • By Sarah Koenig Enterprise reporter
  • Monday, December 1, 2008 2:21pm

Community colleges statewide have been asked to slash about 20 percent from their budgets for the next two years. That will likely mean cutting programs and services, tuition increases and turning away students, though specifics have yet to be decided.

“The level of it is so huge it’s hard to get your mind around,” said Lee Lambert, president of Shoreline Community College. “As far as I know it is unprecedented.”

People hit by the down economy have been flocking to community colleges to get retraining or go back to school, so the timing of the cuts is especially bad, officials say.

The state Office of Financial Management has asked colleges and universities statewide to assume a 20 percent cut for the next biennium, along with cuts to take place immediately. That includes the University of Washington and other four-year state colleges.

The reason: The state faces an unprecedented $5 to $6 billion budget gap over the next two years that will likely mean painful cuts in other areas as well.

The 20 percent cut must be approved by state legislators this spring and is not final, but officials say they aren’t counting on a big change in the funding picture.

The cuts threaten the college’s very mission as an open door institution, Lambert said.

“We may have to turn people away,” he said at a college Board of Trustees meeting Nov. 26. “You have all these people you have to serve with less money.”

If Shoreline cut 20 percent of students served, about 4,100 full-time equivalent students (FTEs) could attend the college, down from the 5,200 FTEs the college can serve now. However, nothing specific has been decided yet.

Officials are also looking at raising tuition and cutting programs and staff.

State community colleges can only raise tuition by 7 percent per year, per the law.

As for programs, some of the most expensive programs serve the poorest or least educated, like the English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Education programs. Some colleges may be tempted to cut back on those, but that’s especially damaging to their mission of serving everyone, Lambert said.

Shoreline Community College would have to cut just over $5 million to meet the 20 percent goal. Officials have assembled a $1 million cut from this year’s budget, to take effect immediately. Layoffs could happen in winter quarter to achieve early savings, Lambert said.

“What we are doing is raising an even more rigid class system,” board chair Shoubee Liaw said of the cuts. “Ten years from now, where will we be if we do not educate those undereducated folks?”

Lambert said he is committed to the mission of the college and will do what he can to see it continue its mission.

Edmonds Community College is facing a $1.2 million cut for this year and a roughly $5.9 million cut for the next two years.

The cuts will be tremendous, said Rachel Solemsaas, vice president for finance and operations at Edmonds Community College.

“We are working hard because we do want to maintain our open access,” she said.

There will have to be a reduction in students served, tuition will go up and programs and services will be cut, though nothing specific has been decided yet, said John Michaelson, vice president of college relations. Cutting programs could mean class sections or whole programs. Everything is on the table, including layoffs, he said.

The proposed cuts come at a time when community colleges are swelling because of the down economy. Faced with the tough job market, people are staying in school, going back to school or getting training for new jobs.

At Edmonds and Shoreline community colleges, enrollment jumped 7 percent from last fall to this fall. Worker retraining program numbers have shot up too.

“We feel we’re the best answer to job creation,” Michaelson said.

That’s a point Shoreline Community College officials have tried to make to legislators as well.

“We are the solution. We can help the state recover economically,” Lambert said. “Don’t starve the solution.”

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