When it comes to salaries, Washington community college faculty are falling behind their peers in other states and the K-12 public school system. But raising salaries to catch up would likely bring financial hardship for these colleges — unless the Legislature steps in.

“All the faculty agree we want raises, but not at the risk of closing down the college, because then we lose our jobs,” said Brad Benjamin, president of the Lower Columbia College faculty union.

Washington community college faculty make 12.4 percent less than their colleagues in states with similar economic factors, college revenue, enrollment and faculty population, according to a 2018 study by Western Washington University Center for Economics and Business Research.

A pay gap is also present between community college faculty and K-12 teachers, making it harder to compete for quality instructors, said John Boesenberg, executive deputy director of business operations for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

“The state’s base allocation for K-12 is about $65,000 per year. ... Our average salary is $62,000. So you can see even in the way the state allocates funds, it’s in excess of ours by about $3,000 per teacher,” Boesenberg said.

A school or college can pay more than the state’s base allocation, though. In Longview, the average community college faculty member makes $65,155, while the average K-12 teacher makes $71,300. (Note: LCC’s faculty have 173 contracted work days, while Longview Public Schools teachers have 181 contracted days.)

Some part-time faculty members have left LCC for jobs in K-12 schools, Benjamin said.

“I know most full-time faculty members here are very dedicated to the college, but they look across the fence back there at Mark Morris, and they know if they were there … (they’d) be making more,” he said.

The Legislature funds only 65 percent of faculty salaries, leaving colleges to cover the rest through tuition revenue. About 85 percent of a community college’s total operating budget goes toward salaries and benefits, Boesenberg said.

This “fund-split” has been in place since 2013, when state budget writers first introduced the model, and the Legislature stopped fully funding faculty salaries, said Laura McDowell, a spokeswoman for the state board. It was a strategy for dealing with the “aftershocks from the Great Recession,” McDowell said.

“Faced with a $1 billion budget shortfall (in 2013-2015), budget writers shifted a portion of compensation costs onto colleges with the expectation that tuition revenues would fill the void. They haven’t,” McDowell said.

LCC President Chris Bailey said the fund-split worked while enrollment was high. That tends to be the case during economic downturns, when efforts to retrain idled workers boost enrollment, Bailey said.

But when the economy improved, enrollment and tuition revenue declined. Since the 2013-2014 school year, LCC’s tuition revenue has decreased by about $1.6 million, Bailey said.

During that time, the state also cut community college tuition 5 percent, then tied tuition prices and increases to the average median hourly wage for the last 14 years, McDowell said.

Collectively, those events lowered the portion of revenue LCC receives from tuition. Five years ago, about 30 percent of LCC’s revenues came from tuition. Now, it’s only 23 percent. (For public state universities, anywhere from about 15 to 30 percent of revenues are raised by tuition. The cost of instruction at these universities ranges from about 20 to 40 percent.)

Usually the state allocates more money to community colleges “during the good times” because there’s more tax revenue available when the economy is good, Bailey said. That makes up for the difference lost from enrollment, he said.

“It’s always been that balance, but this time during the good times, we didn’t get any money,” he said. “Now we are worried about what the next … years look like for us.”

LCC just added its first four-year degree program, which officials hope will attract more students, in turn raising tuition revenue. But if the fund-split stays in place, LCC and colleges like it could be forced to cut other programs, reduce services, and decrease staff size, Bailey said.

It will also continue to get increasingly more difficult to attract and retain new faculty, Boesenberg said.

“We are competing for that talent with these other employers,” he said. “But our staff salaries have been stagnated, basically, while other areas (like K-12) have grown to compete for that talent.”

The solution the state board is proposing addresses the problem on both fronts. LCC and the other colleges represented by the board are asking the Legislature to provide $68 million more in funding to fully support a 6 percent raise for faculty over the next two years. (To put that in perspective, the state allocated $1.5 billion in total to community and technical colleges in the 2017-2019 biennium budget.)Boesenberg anticipates these colleges will ask for another 6 percent raise in 2021 to cover the rest of the 12.4 percent disparity.

“We would like the 12.4 percent right now, but we’ve had discussions and evaluated that and decided it would be more reasonable to ask for that over four years, rather than all in one,” Boesenberg said.

And by getting rid of the fund-split, this proposal means colleges could maintain their current programs and faculty populations.

Of course, the state could also choose to increase college tuition to help these institutions with their financial contribution to salaries.

The state board opposes that solution because it would put the financial responsibility of faculty salaries on “the backs of our students,” Boesenberg said.

“Our mission is to provide access to the opportunities and experience education provides. It seems counter to our mission to raise tuition, because that closes the door for a lot of our students,” Boesenberg said. “We believe the state should pay for the salary increases for our staff, not our students.”

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