Monday, April 02, 2012

The Long View

In a fit of responsibility, our budget guy did some projections five years out.  Simply put, the gap is growing quickly, and it’s not likely that the state will pony up anything close to enough to fill it..

It was a sobering exercise.  

Students are currently the single largest revenue source, which was never supposed to be true for a community college.  But enrollments are down from their 2009 peak, and the number of high school grads in our service area is projected to continue to decline for the next several years.  Even with thoughtful outreach to adult students, and some pickup of economic exiles from some higher-priced places, it looks like flat enrollment is the best case scenario.  And while our tuition and fees are still quite low relative to our area, nobody sees double-digit percentage increases as sustainable over time.  There comes a point at which the students are carrying all they can carry.

We don’t control what the state gives, so assuming substantial increases in state aid would just be irresponsible.  That’s not to say we wouldn’t welcome it -- bring it on! -- but that we can’t count on it.  And it’s not like political advocacy is any guarantee of success.

The college gets some revenues from non-credit offerings, which encompass both personal enrichment classes and workforce training.  We intend to continue to grow those, but they tend to be somewhat unpredictable from year to year.  The same holds true of room rentals to outside groups.  The gym charges community members and employees for memberships, and that can probably go up a bit, but it’s hardly a game-changer.  Bookstore revenues help, but with students going online more, the bookstore is likely exhausted as a source of growth.  As a community college, sports are not a revenue source.

Philanthropy is of limited benefit, since we aren’t allowed to use it for operating expenses.  It helps some with construction and capital (like microscopes), but we can’t use it for salaries.  And labor is, by far, the largest cost item in the budget.

Grants can help in some areas, but they’re typically of limited duration, they bring high administrative costs, and in most cases they can’t be used for operating expenses outside narrowly defined grant activities.  (For federal grants, they actually have prohibitions on “supplanting” existing college resources.  Put differently, that means that any money can’t be used for what you would normally use money for.  That tends to limit the usefulness a bit.)

We’ve already plucked much of the low-hanging fruit.  We used stimulus funding to improve energy efficiency on campus, lowering utility bills ever after.  We’ve shed administrators.  Our adjunct percentage is already plenty high enough.  

Online courses may help, since they continue to show growth and the infrastructure costs are minimal.  Annoyingly, though, we’re at the point at which continued growth of online offerings will bring increased costs, since we’ll have to start developing more robust online processes and services to serve students who don’t come on campus.  (Right now, the vast majority of our online students are also onsite, just using online to make their schedules friendlier.  That’s pretty normal for community colleges nationally.)  Recruiting students who never set foot on campus will require much more than manual workarounds.

We’re experimenting with various ways to improve student success, and there’s a reasonable argument that we may get some small financial benefit from improved retention.  But unless we’re willing to jack tuition up to levels that actually cover full cost, that won’t save us.  And most retention efforts cost money.

I intend to beat the bushes locally for ideas, hoping to find something, but experience tells me that faculty proposals tend to involve spending more money, not less.  

The alternative to raising revenues, of course, is to cut costs.  That’s the default path, and we’ll almost certainly continue to have to do some of that.  But the point of “access” is access TO something.  If the education has been watered down, what’s the point of having access to it?  If we want to maintain quality -- or, preferably, improve -- we’ll need to raise revenues.  

So in good Gen X fashion, I’m crowdsourcing it.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a public college come up with an effective way to raise revenues without compromising quality or just jacking up costs for students?