College budget hit by declining enrollment
Wenatchee Valley College (WVC), which provides higher education to students in north central Washington, is laying off employees in response to declining student enrollment.
Faced with a projected $1 million budget deficit, the college announced this month that 20 employees would be laid off effective Jan. 31. No faculty positions are among the layoffs, and classes will not be affected this year, college officials said.
The regional community college is facing challenges that are impacting institutions of higher learning across the country — lower enrollment due to a strong job market and declining numbers of high school graduates.
“It’s a local manifestation of a national trend,” WVC President Jim Richardson said in a recent interview.
When the economy is strong and jobs are plentiful, fewer people are seeking to bolster their education. “People in their 20s and 30s have jobs and … they’re not coming back for retraining, or training for a better job,” Richardson said.
And the demographic shift toward fewer high school graduates due to declining birth rates means a smaller pool of potential students. “It’s a double-edged sword for us,” Richardson said.
The layoffs include two employees at the college’s Omak campus and 18 at the Wenatchee campus, said Libby Siebens, community relations executive director. Twelve are classified union employees and eight are exempt employees, she said.
In addition to the layoffs, the college is using furloughs to address the budget crisis. Exempt employees will take 10 days of unpaid leave, and classified employees will take eight days of unpaid leave during the academic year. The college is not filling vacated positions without review, which will leave some positions vacant. In addition, the WVC faculty union agreed to give $100,000 from a professional development fund to the college’s operating budget.
Although WVC has been tracking the decline in enrollment over the past decade, enrollment for the current school year appeared strong after registration opened last May, and continued at the highest rate in five years through August, according to information from the college.
With a strong enrollment outlook, the college board of trustees approved a yearly operating budget based on a 2-percent increase in enrollment. But the rate of enrollment dropped sharply in September and didn’t recover when the academic year began, resulting in a projected deficit of nearly $1 million in the college operating budget.
Fall quarter enrollment dropped by 2.1% compared to last year, Siebens said. This year WVC expects to have 6,289 students at the end of the year, compared to 6,934 last year. This year’s enrollment is about 1,316 fewer students than 10 years ago.
The decrease in enrollment this year included students in the Running Start program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to take classes at community colleges and receive both high school and college credits. Smaller high school class sizes this year resulted in the first decline in Running Start enrollment since the program was first offered in 1993, Siebens said. Fall enrollment in Running Start was 776 students this year, compared to 871 in 2018. “Running Start was our big surprise,” Siebens said.
Running Start students don’t pay tuition. The colleges they attend receive 92-93% of the state allocation for students enrolled in the program, so lower enrollment means a drop in income for the college.
Richardson said the impact of the layoffs “has been devastating” for staff at the college, which employs almost 500 people. “We’re small, so everybody knows everybody. It feels very personal for everyone,” he said.
“It’s devastating for the people who work next to the people losing their job. Not only are they losing the person working next to them, but they also know on February 1st they will have more work to do,” Richardson said.
Because 86% of the college’s operating budget is spent on personnel costs, the college focused on making cuts in that area, college officials said. The layoffs impact employees with salaries ranging from $30,000 to $100,000 per year, who have been working at WVC for one to 15 years, Siebens said. They include staff working in facilities and grounds, administration, student services and IT positions.
Richardson said decisions on which positions to cut were made with the understanding that enrollment is projected to continue declining and the college will have “to restructure what we do.”
Others hit also
At least a dozen other community and technical colleges in Washington are facing budget shortfalls, and are part of a larger national trend, WVC officials said. According to figures released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, fall enrollment in higher education at colleges and universities around the country has dropped for the eighth consecutive year. “It’s a new reality,” Richardson said.
No academic programs at WVC will be affected this year. If academic programs are cut in the future, the college will work to ensure that students are able to complete their degrees or certificates, according to a question-and-answer page on the WVC website, which can be found at www.wvc.edu/budget.
WVC is hoping two new academic programs will help boost enrollment, Siebens said. The college is launching a pharmacy technician program this winter in partnership with Confluence Health in Wenatchee, which asked WVC to create the program. The college is also planning to offer a bachelor’s of applied science in teaching, to meet a need for early education teachers and special education teachers in north central Washington.
Richardson said he’s been asked why WVC is continuing construction of a new building at its Wenatchee campus while facing a budget deficit. He said the 73,935-square-foot building is funded through state capital funds, which are separate from operating funds and cannot be used for operations. The state Legislature allocated $32 million this year for the project, expected to cost about $37 million. The building will replace a 68-year-old building and provide new classrooms and offices and house a public conference center and the Chelan County Emergency Operations Center.
About half of WVC students study career and technical fields, receiving a two-year degree and going on to jobs. The rest of the students transfer their credits to continue their education at other colleges or universities, Siebens said.
WVC was founded 80 years ago, and serves a district covering more than 10,000 square miles of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties. The college provides liberal arts, professional and technical, basic skills and continuing education.