Enrollment declines at Lower Columbia College have likely “bottomed out” at this point, according to President Chris Bailey. But the college is still dealing with how to fill a potential $500,000 deficit in next year’s operating budget and protect itself against dramatic changes in the economy.
When the Great Recession hit Longview and sent thousands back out to look for employment, many ended up at LCC to pursue degrees and professional certifications.
Community colleges across the country are known to have an inverse relationship with employment trends: As unemployment rises, more people go back to school. But as the number of jobs available increase, students leave and return to work.
In the 2009-2010 school year, Lower Columbia College enrollment peaked at 4,310 full-time students. Enrollment in community and technical colleges across Washington state had been trending upward, too: from 164,000 community college students in 2006-07 to a peak of 200,000 in 2010-11.
As the economy has improved, enrollment declined. By the 2015-16 academic year, LCC enrollment fell to 3,340 students — a nearly 1,000-student decrease in five years.
While enrollment was skyrocketing, the Legislature cut community college funding by 23 percent from 2009 to 2013. While some of that funding has been restored, LCC’s budget now consists of just over 55 percent state funding, compared to 70 percent before the recession. State funding to the college hit a low of 48 percent in 2011-12.
“So we (got) this huge cut, but it was masked because we had more students coming and paying tuition,” Bailey said.
The college responded by cutting almost 10 percent of its campus positions (39 faculty and staff) between 2008 and 2011, and hiring part-time temporary help while enrollment was up, in addition to raising tuition and deferring maintenance.
This year the college is meeting budgetary obligations, but it’s still trying to find half a million dollars in either cuts or additional revenues while maintaining its services.
“We’re having to be more entrepreneurial than we used to be and less reliant on the state revenue side and what the Legislature does for us,” Bailey said.
So the name of the game for LCC has become “diversify,” and in more ways than one.
For example, after enrolling one or two international students a year for some time, the college established its International Program office five years ago.
Now the college has 21 international students hailing from China, Japan, Australia, Nepal, Libya and Kenya. The hope is to expand the program by two to three students per year, reaching a maximum enrollment between 60 to 70 international students a year.
International students don’t just add diversity to campus − they also pay out-of-state tuition. For a standard, 15-credit quarter, a Washington state residents pay about $1,400 in tuition. An out of state or international student pays more than double: Almost $3,200 a quarter.
“We started the international program with the idea that over the long haul we might be able to produce additional revenue from international students. They’d be additional students not in lieu of our students. They’d be added students at a higher tuition rate,” Bailey said. “That would also help us with diversity for both the campus and the community.”
The college has made good on that promise to expand the program by developing housing for international students: It currently owns an 11-unit apartment complex on Olympia Way. The college is also working on completing the purchase of another 12-unit complex on 20th Avenue.
“Once we have this next complex, we will have our need met for quite some time,” said Vice President of Administration Nolan Wheeler.
Increases in online course offerings could also draw in more students, especially from rural Cowlitz County and beyond.
The college has been steadily increasing online course offerings: It offered 343 fully online courses in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 237 just five years prior. While the headcount for students taking online classes hasn’t changed much − up just over 60 students in the past five years − the college has seen changing demographics that could present future opportunities.
More students in Toutle, Wahkiakum County and Woodland are taking classes online now than five years ago, and more students are doing larger sections of coursework online.
About eight or nine students last year completed their entire Associate’s Degrees entirely online.
“They’re a regular student in every sense. We have every student service available to them,” said LCC spokeswoman Wendy Hall. “They can do online new student orientation. They can do online advising. Financial aid and other service-related things are electronic anyway.”
And there are more ideas: the college is looking at expanding its music, drama and arts programs to take advantage of its Rose Center for the Arts, a selling point for prospective arts students.
Bailey said there’s also potential for adding more sports programs to draw in more students.
And now that Washington’s community colleges are now authorized by the state to offer their own four-year bachelor’s degrees, LCC could create its own program. Or it could continue to expand degree offerings through its University Center, which allows students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees through partner universities while remaining on the LCC campus.
“We’re looking at those, and then saying: ‘How much revenue can we then have that’s in addition to what it costs to run the program that we can use for our student services or academic offerings?’” Bailey said. “It’s a way to back fill some of the loss and make up for some of the lack of inflation that we haven’t been getting from the state.”