Community colleges cheer boost in enrollment-based funding
By Ron Feemster
— March 18, 2014
At the end of the legislative session, the refrain was the same everywhere in the Capitol: Community colleges did very well in the budget this year.
That is true. After Gov. Matt Mead recommended no extra budget appropriation to compensate for enrollment growth at the state’s seven colleges, the Joint Appropriations Committee added $9 million to the schools’ budget. Budget amendments passed by both houses increased that total to $14.3 million for the biennium, exactly what the colleges had requested.
Compared to the $260 million biennial budget for the whole community college system, that may not seem like much. But 60 percent of the two-year budget goes for fixed costs. Only 40 percent of the basic appropriation, or $104 million, is driven by enrollment, according to Jim Rose, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. $14.3 million is a 14 percent increase.
So are the colleges happy? Yes. But only in the short term. Although colleges got what they asked for, the uncertainty in the funding model causes problems for long-term educational planning.
“We’re extremely grateful to have the money,” said Jason Wood, executive vice president of Academic and Student Services at Central Wyoming College. But he was quick to add that spending the money well is harder than it looks. When future funding is uncertain, schools are reluctant to risk money on programs that might take time to grow.
“We look at it as one-time money,” said Wood. “We need to build a program that we can run sustainably.”
Wood aims to spend some of the money on a new program in simulation technology, which grows from a common thread running through the nursing and rural justice training programs. Students in both programs use simulators to learn proper responses in situations that mimic real life.
In nursing, the simulator might be a mannequin that shows symptoms of a heart attack or a pediatric emergency. Criminal justice students on a digital shooting range might face a simulated hostage situation, perhaps a child trapped in the upstairs bedroom of a house. Students respond to the simulation. Their reactions are recorded and reexamined after the fact, noting the warning signs they recognized and the ones they missed.
“We have an IT person who is a genius at building these simulators,” Wood said. “We want to develop a program to teach students to build them, too.”
The program is likely to be popular, and thus less risky than many that the college could attempt to build with short-term funding, Wood said. If enrollment is good, the new program could be paying for itself before this one-time appropriation runs out.
At Northwest College, President Stefani Hicswa and her budget committee want to put new money toward expanding the first-year seminars, which would likely require more faculty, and enlarging a new advising center. Opened as a trial project, the center has helped the college retain students. But she is not certain that ongoing legislative funding will enable the school to sustain the larger programs.
“I’m very pleased with the money,” she said. “I’m not whining. But one of the hardest things for a president is when you fund a new program and you can’t maintain it. We want to keep it going. We don’t want RIFs — reductions in force.”
Such spending dilemmas are typical of the hard choices that administrators face when they do not know what the next round of funding will bring. In particular, college leaders find it hard to commit to programs that require a school to attract new faculty with the promise of long-term employment. Community colleges look with envy on the K-12 system, which adjusts its funding and distribution levels every five years based on enrollment.
“We would really prefer to recalibrate the standard budget every four years,” Rose said. In other words, the biennial and sometimes annual enrollment adjustment could be made as part of the main appropriation for the colleges and held steady across two biennial budgets. “We’d live within the budget for four years. Enrollment fluctuations could be documented. We would reassess every four years.”
The payoff would not necessarily come in a higher budget, but in more reliable financial forecasts.
“The current funding model creates volatility on the college side,” Rose said.
Another difficulty with the enrollment-funding model is its reliance on the 2004-2005 academic year as a baseline. Enrollments jumped in 2009-2010 as a result of the economic downturn. And they have gone up and come down slightly since then. In general, community college enrollments spike when unemployment rises. If people can’t work, they go to school.
The Wyoming Community College Commission asked for $14.3 million based on the 2009-2010 academic year as a baseline. This is the standard the schools would like to see anchored in the statute.
“We recognized we shouldn’t be asking for money based on a baseline that is a decade old,” Rose said. In fact, the colleges might have asked for $20 million based on that other formula, according to Steve Bahmer, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Trustees Association.
Rose, Bahmer and a parade of college presidents buttonholed legislators in Cheyenne during the budget session, arguing for the less volatile funding model. Rose said that in several discussions with lawmakers he felt what he called a “glimmer of recognition, but not the political will.” This year, the idea was a non-starter. Like many ideas before it, including the fuel tax and perhaps now Medicaid expansion, progress will be measured over several legislative sessions.
“I think we’re going to have this conversation again,” Rose said. “We have a good model for allocating money to the colleges. It’s transparent and it works. But we need a better funding model.”
If the system changed, the House and Senate might not have community college presidents sitting in the gallery every day at every session. An ongoing budget appropriation might take the pressure off legislators and colleges alike. As it is, the colleges show up every year making what the law calls an “exception request.”
“It always looks like we’re asking for more money when we’re actually asking for the same one-time enrollment growth funding,” said Jo Anne McFarland , president of Central Wyoming College, who spent a week watching lawmakers from the galleries. “We asked in the budget request that the $14.3 million move into the ongoing budget. We asked the Legislature either to do that in a budget footnote or to change the statute.”
Distributing the money
Although the $14.3 million was budgeted on the basis of enrollment increases, the money will be divided up between colleges based on course completion.
As funding criteria, enrollment and completion are very different. They underline how colleges are asked to meet two goals that are often at odds. On the one hand, the community colleges have always been dedicated to open access. All residents of Wyoming with a high school diploma or GED certificate may enroll, whether they are fully prepared to do college work or not. On the other hand, the colleges are increasingly asked to cut the amount of remedial coursework they offer and speed the time to a degree, even when students struggle with the work.
“We’re real good at getting them in the door,” Rose said. “But we need to get better at getting them across the stage.”
While the new performance metric, as of this session, is course completion, it may eventually become graduation rate, according to Rose. For now at least, course completion is usually looked at in two sub-metrics. Course completion rate — the number of course completers divided by the number of course starters — often favors some of the smaller colleges. Course completion volume, the number of completed courses at a college, tends to favor the larger campuses.
Under this year’s budget bill, the Community College Commission must distribute $14.3 million among the seven community colleges on the basis of their course completion volumes in the previous academic year.
As the lawmakers put it in the budget bill, each year $7.15 million will be distributed “in direct proportion which the number of class completions for the prior school year at each college bears to the total number of class completions among all colleges for the prior school year.”
A course completion is one student finishing one course with a passing grade. On the assumption that roughly the same percentage of students drop or fail classes at each school, the number of completions should mirror enrollment.
But the academic climate of the school plays a role as well. The emphasis on getting students to the finish line in every course makes faculty, not colleges, the key player in the funding formula, notes Steve Thulin, professor of history at Northwest College. Colleges enroll students. And colleges grant degrees. But faculty members decide who passes and who fails, who earns funding for the school and who does not.
Giving faculty more influence can also put faculty members under more pressure, especially adjunct faculty members, young professors and others worried about job security. What if an institution began to evaluate faculty members on the rate at which students pass their courses?
“We are told there would not be any of that kind of pressure,” said Thulin. “But administrators are going to sit down and think about this. They’ll want to find a way to get more students a passing grade.”
Hicswa, Thulin’s boss, says he needn’t worry. “My philosophy is that academic rigor is what makes or breaks the college,” Hicswa said. “We must never compromise our values for money.”
No matter which funding variable she has to work with, or how many, Hicswa believes her job is to focus on student success. Access, enrollment, completion, retention and graduation could all be funding metrics. They are just different measures of success, in her view. “If you do it right and focus on student success, the money will follow,” she said.
History suggests that states, if not professors, will lower their standards to avoid losing money. This was the case under No Child Left Behind in state K-12 systems. When student performance did not increase fast enough, some states, including Wyoming, lowered standards in reading and math so that more students and schools achieved adequate yearly progress and the states avoided federal penalties.
“That is the real danger,” said McFarland. “It’s a road we’re not willing to go down. We can’t afford to abandon high standards.”
For now, the community colleges are receiving a little less than 6 percent of their budget based on performance. “Almost 15 percent of the 40 percent driven by enrollment — or 6 percent of the total budget — is to be distributed using a completion metric,” Rose calculates.
That percentage may increase as performance metrics become more entrenched in state education politics. Complete College Wyoming is an ever-growing policy super-committee made up of trustees and college presidents, with a member each from the governor’s office, the Legislature and a community college faculty. The goal of CCW, as it is known, is to increase the graduation rate at community colleges by 5 percent a year for the next 10 years. If it is successful, the stage will be set for using graduation rates in the funding formula.
It is possible to sidestep at least some tricky funding issues by seeking outside sources of income. At Western Community College in Rock Springs, local and state companies donate equipment and money to support programs that train prospective workers.
“We train the skilled workforce at Western,” said Karla Leach, president of the college. “We serve the industries that pull the minerals out of the ground. We are growing that space in our institution to build more training facilities.”
About 15 percent of Western’s 4,000 students pursue a technical certificate or degree related directly to oil and gas technology. That technical part of the institution is growing faster than the transfer part. Leach says the technical training programs serve 25 percent more students today than in 2004.
“Employers want students who can read and write technical writing, who can read a schematic,” Leach said. “We are trying to teach leadership, computer skills, math and communication.”
Leach says she sees students working in the oil and gas fields as an initial step. They move on to supervisor and then to automated systems, where they could run a field operation from a computer terminal.
Companies sometimes pay for instructors and often donate equipment the college needs to train the workforce. The school received a pump from Williams Petroleum worth $250,000, she said.
While this funding is bound to specific courses, it is decoupled from the annual rounds of exception-request funding. “About $300,000 comes in every year,” Leach said. “We spend it all.”
The Legislature may eventually change the enrollment-funding model and move the exception requests into the standard budget. But it is equally likely to increase the amount of money distributed among the colleges using performance metrics. It is important to make sure that those metrics — especially graduation rates — make sense for the special population of students at community colleges, according to Rose.
“The three year graduation rate is about 30 percent,” Rose said. But that rate is misleading in many ways. The rate does a poor job of tracking a student who left the state and finished an Associate’s degree elsewhere. Some students transfer successfully to four-year schools without graduating. All of those students failed to graduate from community colleges but succeeded in their education.
Perhaps more important, the current definition of successful graduation misses the success stories of people who return and graduate after taking a break from school to address life problems.
“Life gets in the way,” Rose said. “Many community college students need to deal with other issues before they can concentrate on school.”
But if students are gone too long, their graduations don’t count. When such a student returns and finishes a degree, Rose said, that should not be viewed as a failure to meet a three-year timetable. Instead, community colleges and the Legislature that funds them must recognize the graduate as a success.
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @feemsternews.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.