Commentary by Mary Spilde, LCC President
First, I want to express my appreciation to all the students who have shared their concerns and suggestions throughout this year’s difficult budget development process. Student success is key to our discussion. Second, if there is just one lesson to take away, it’s that Lane must live within the fiscal realities created by a decade of state disinvestment in community colleges if we are to move forward with quality programs to serve current and future students.
Lane has to close a $4.7 million funding deficit for 2015/16. This is on top of the $12.6 million deficit that we closed for 2014/15. Even under current legislative proposals, Lane has less state funding per student than in the 1999-2001 biennium (more proof behind the embarrassing fact that Oregon ranks 46th in the nation in higher education funding).
During the decade of state funding decline, we balanced our budgets using multiple efficiencies such as cutting back on materials and supplies, dipping into savings, holding vacant positions open, and much more — while preserving full-time jobs, providing modest increases in compensation, and retaining vital programs and services.
As students know only too well, we also raised tuition. In fact, tuition has increased 47 percent over the last 10 years and now provides 44 percent of Lane’s revenues. Before the disinvestment, tuition hovered at around 20 percent. The shift from funding education as a public good that benefits everyone to a private commodity that fewer can afford is fundamentally opposed to the community college mission.
The board directed us to not raise tuition any further this year. Since many of our cost-cutting remedies were no longer available, that meant looking at program reductions. We evaluated programs using multiple board-approved criteria vetted over years of budgeting. Many factors were carefully considered such as enrollment trends, enrollment capacity, cost per student, retention rates, availability of jobs, and job placement rates.
We also sought Employment Department data on job trends. The department has a time-proven, rigorous process for labor market projections that fall within one to two percent accuracy. That’s hard to beat. Finally, we sought feedback from focused employer interviews to further confirm or disconfirm our findings.
In the end, we identified two programs for elimination – Auto Body and Electronics. Unfortunately, their enrollment has declined significantly more than other programs. Their completion rates are lower and labor market projections are weak. When we ask students to pay almost $100 a credit and potentially go into debt, we need to consider whether they will be able to find a family wage job at the end.
Finally, we decided to initiate redesign of a third program, Medical Office Assisting, to better reflect its changing workplace. We will enroll those students already in the pipeline this fall and spend the year ahead working with employers and faculty to upgrade the program.
Even after reductions, students will still have more than 40 professional and technical associate degree programs to choose from plus additional certificate options within those programs. Lane has added many programs over the years to meet community needs and an evolving labor market. In the last six years, for example, we added associate degrees in Management, Exercise and Movement Science, Sustainability Coordinator, Watershed Science Technician, and Energy Manage Building Controls Technician; not to mention additional certificates. Enrollment in our professional and technical programs has remained relatively static over the last 20 years.
It is sad that when tough decisions have to be made because of the long term disinvestment in higher education, people sometimes turn against one another instead of standing together to overcome a common challenge. Budget development is a year-long process at Lane and there have been many opportunities for involvement. It has been a regular board item since September. E-mails have been sent to update faculty and staff throughout the year. All-staff forums have been held and well attended.
Following the April board meeting, when we had to present a balanced budget proposal in keeping with the budget calendar, the board asked that we compare the administration’s and the faculty union’s data. We did that through both formal and informal meetings.
Our budget team, a group of highly experienced people committed to students, worked earnestly using information from the college database that showed actual numbers—not just assumptions. I have confidence in our calculations and believe them to reflect true costs and revenues according to the methods that we have used and published over many years.
Absolutely no one at Lane wants to cut the budget. Behind every line item on a spreadsheet there are dedicated employees and committed students working hard to transform their lives.
Nonetheless, Lane is required by law to adopt a balanced budget every year. After weighing administration’s data, including the number of completions and labor market need, and the union’s numbers, and hearing many hours of testimony, the board moved forward at its May meeting and voted to eliminate the programs after we have offered continuing students the opportunity to complete their programs.
It is time for us all to move forward.
The state is certainly moving forward. The May revenue forecast predicts more revenue, but thanks to Oregon’s “kicker” law, millions will go back to taxpayers. Community colleges have a chance at additional funding but we can’t take it for granted. We need to work hard to assure an additional allocation. The deferred maintenance funding we have been fighting for is apparently off the table.
I want to thank our students for their amazing advocacy work in Salem throughout the year. I also want students to know I wrote our governor and the Lane legislative delegation asking them to start work on reforming the kicker law. It is a very heavy lift but it seems ridiculous that the state will credit each taxpayer an average $100 when there are so many critical public needs, not the least of which is adequate funding for community colleges.
Let’s look ahead. There are only 20-some days to graduation and we are focused on helping students successfully complete the term and the year. Then it will be time to regroup and keep fighting for the right to an education.