Enrollment Blues

Jason E. Kaplan
Matt DeGarmo, former instructor at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton

Head counts at Oregon’s community colleges were in a slow pattern of decline when the COVID-19 pandemic hit — and they’ve yet to bounce back.

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Matt DeGarmo moved to Pendleton five years ago to lead Blue Mountain Community College’s criminal-justice program — teaching criminology as well as training aspiring law-enforcement officers. He also started a security program where students provide security for the school for credit and can earn a security certificate at the end.

This spring he learned he would be losing his job at the college.

In April BMCC president Mark Browning said the college planned to eliminate 10 faculty jobs in order to address declining revenue and enrollment at the college. The faculty fought cuts publicly, and privately negotiated with the Board of Education to save faculty jobs. By mid-August, the union was still working with the administration, but four full-time and five part-time positions were scheduled for termination Oct. 5.

0922Spotlight556A7621Blue Mountain Community College president Mark Browning. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Blue Mountain is the only community college in the state that’s cutting faculty jobs in 2022. But all are facing a steep drop in enrollment and a commensurate decline in revenue that started before the pandemic and has only worsened since then.

Observers in higher education have long predicted enrollment would fall off a “demographic cliff” due to the decline in the number of births during the Great Recession of 2009. But for at least some sectors of postsecondary education — including community college — that long-predicted drop has already begun.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. According to a report published by the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission, full-time enrollment at Oregon community colleges was 24.6% lower in 2021 than in fall 2019. The number of FTE students also fell 7.2% between 2020 and 2021.

While the number of students at four-year universities is also down from prepandemic levels, the dip is not nearly so dramatic, with the total number of FTE students in 2021 down 4.9% from 2019 and 4.3% lower than 2020.

At Blue Mountain, 1,569 students enrolled in fall 2021 for both part-time and full-time instruction. That’s a slight increase from the year before (1,531) but a loss of 616 students — or 28% of the student body — from prepandemic levels.

But even before the pandemic, enrollment at community colleges was trending downward.

Between 2012 and 2019, total enrollment dropped by 21.8% at community colleges, with full-time enrollment dipping by 25.6%. Total headcounts at Oregon’s public four-year universities in those same years dropped by less than a percentage point; the full-time enrollment dip was slightly higher, at 1.7%.

Average tuition and fees at community colleges in Oregon in 2021-22 were around $6,000 per student, The Oregonian reported. Tuition makes up about 23% of the average college’s budget. Other funding comes from property taxes and reimbursement through the state.

“It’s an overused analogy, but it was kind of a perfect storm,” says John Wykoff, director of the Oregon Community College Association. “We haven’t seen anything like this before, where there was a major disruption in the economy, in education delivery, in students’ abilities to find child care. All of the things that are usually barriers for our students became even more intense.”

At the same time, wages — including wages for jobs that don’t require a college degree or certificate — have been increasing. And some schools halted instruction in career and technical education classes — what used to be called vocational education — because they have to be held in person, so those programs lost students, Wykoff says.

“The other thing is community college enrollment in particular is kind of counter-cyclical to the economy,” Wykoff notes, meaning that enrollment increases when the economy is bad, or at least when jobs are scarce.

It’s also worth noting that the drop in the number of Oregon residents at four-year schools was much higher than that in the general population, suggesting out-of-state students are increasingly filling revenue coffers at Oregon schools. The total headcount of Oregon residents dropped by 12% and full-time enrollment dropped by 10.9%.

Schools received federal support to make up for tuition shortfalls and maintain staffing during the pandemic, Wykoff says. But now those funds are running out.

The cuts at Blue Mountain follow cuts in classified staff — that is, non-faculty staff — in 2020 and 2021, and some earlier than that, according to Browning.

“It is now at the point where the numbers do not add up,” Browning says. “We simply have too few students right now for the number of faculty we have, and that’s why we have to go there.”

But the union says the proposed cuts don’t compute — and union president Sascha McKeon, who teaches biology at the school, says the college announced three faculty retrenchments in 2021, but says the union was able to save two of those jobs.

Browning says the school is increasingly focusing on career and technical education, and the cuts reflect that.

According to McKeon, the cuts were in music, chemistry, business, English and criminal justice.

0922Spotlight 556A7082Faculty union president and BMCC biology instructor Sascha McKeon.  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

She says while a cut to the music program might make sense at first blush, enrollment has not dropped dramatically in that instructor’s classes.

That’s because students who want to transfer to a four-year college need a minimum number of humanities classes for a transferrable degree. They also need basic science classes.

“Every degree — whether it’s career technical, specialized certificates or transfer degree — everyone needs English,” McKeon says. “Why would you cut your English instructor?”

And McKeon says cutting positions in the business and criminal-justice departments makes even less sense.

DeGarmo says his program — which trains aspiring police officers from around the region — actually increased in enrollment when he took over the department, though enrollment in his department “took a hit” during COVID, as did the college generally and career and technical programs generally. “A lot of community colleges, they’re trying to get back to their roots,” DeGarmo says. But he says 80% of his students are actually seeking transferrable degrees.

And given that he primarily trains people for careers in law enforcement, the cuts suggest Blue Mountain is going in a “random direction.”

“It’s tough being laid off from any position,” DeGarmo says. “I’ve put a ton of work into the department. I doubled enrollment the first year. I brought back a bunch of police training.”

Browning is optimistic that Future Ready Oregon — a $200 million investment package from the state, $17 million of which is earmarked for Career Pathways programs around the state — will help BMCC increase enrollment. (See “Blue Collar Wave,” in Oregon Business’ May 2022 issue, for more detail on this investment.)

“We simply don’t have the resources to be able to front the cost of what it takes to stand a program up, find the instructor that can match the skill set, you know, get it marketed, get it out there and then start to get students into it,” Browning says. “The Future Ready Oregon package will help us do that. What I like about a program like that is it is, in essence, startup money that helps us cover those costs on the front end to where we can get up and get rolling.”

BMCC administrators are currently in conversation with community partners, including employers and other service districts, to assess what their workforce needs are, according to Browning.

Wykoff says while the Future Ready investment will help, it’s not nearly enough to solve the shortfalls community colleges face.

“It will be a significant investment and hopefully move the dial on students getting those short-term certificates and going through those programs. But the fiscal cliff is so steep. The scope of that fiscal loss is just overwhelming compared to that, what the investment in Future Ready Oregon was.”

In addition to the Future Ready package, community colleges also got a $702 million funding increase from the state last year. But they want more: The Oregon Community College Association has asked the Higher Education Coordinating Commission for $308.4 million for the 2023-25 biennium. That’s $156.6 million to cover existing operating costs, as well as an additional $151.8 million in one-time “bridge funding” to cover deficit spending and phase out COVID-19 relief dollars.

McKeon says state reimbursement is based on full-time enrollment, which makes things tough for community colleges, which have a higher percentage of part-time students. She also thinks BMCC should consider alternatives to faculty cuts, like offering more hybrid courses that offer a combination of in-person and remote instruction. She says online courses at the college still consistently fill up quickly, while in-person classes lag behind. And the school needs to work to stay attractive to students, she says.

“This won’t be the last time enrollment will go down. The point is, none of the other Oregon schools are cutting as drastically their instructors’ [jobs],” McKeon says. “You brace for when the students come back, because you need to have a system in place to welcome them back. I don’t see us happening this fall, and I’m really nervous going in.”

When DeGarmo spoke with OB in July, he expected to have to relocate for work. By mid-August, as this issue went into production, he told OB he had taken a one-year position at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. His job at BMCC, he says, is still in the grievance process and heading to arbitration.

“A lot of folks have spent a considerable amount of time and energy and effort focusing on this one aspect of Blue Mountain,” Browning says of the cuts. “There’s so much more going on here, there’s such a bright future, and we’re working toward that. We are working diligently and quickly and aggressively to address new opportunities. We’re moving forward. And I believe the institution’s in the strongest position it’s been in in five years. We have a balanced budget, we have a budget that provides for — not as many resources as we need, but certainly more than we’ve had in years past to be able to engage new opportunities that will result in increased enrollment, even in a strong economy. We have a mindset now that we’re moving forward and we’re progressing.”