Thursday, October 02, 2014

INBODY: Ups and downs of college costs

By BRIAN INBODY, Neosho County Community College | 9/20/2013

We are up and running for fall 2013 at Neosho County Community College. I am happy to report — for the 13th straight year — the college has posted a higher fall semester opening day enrollment than the previous years. To put that in perspective, Neosho has 86 percent more enrollment overall this fall than we did in fall of 2000.

Enrollment is something we watch very closely at Neosho, as you can imagine. It is a measurement of just how vital we are to the community, while providing some of the necessary dollars to operate the college. I have a “live” spreadsheet that automatically updates every day to show me just how many students are enrolled at our various locations and modalities. And through the years, I have watched that spreadsheet show me many new enrollment trends.

We are up and running for fall 2013 at Neosho County Community College. I am happy to report — for the 13th straight year — the college has posted a higher fall semester opening day enrollment than the previous years. To put that in perspective, Neosho has 86 percent more enrollment overall this fall than we did in fall of 2000.

Enrollment is something we watch very closely at Neosho, as you can imagine. It is a measurement of just how vital we are to the community, while providing some of the necessary dollars to operate the college. I have a “live” spreadsheet that automatically updates every day to show me just how many students are enrolled at our various locations and modalities. And through the years, I have watched that spreadsheet show me many new enrollment trends.

For instance, fall enrollment at our Ottawa campus has grown since the turn of the millennium from 3,100 credit hours in 2000 to 5,200 credit hours today — up 68 percent.

The biggest change we have seen, however, has been in our online campus. In 2000, it did not exist per se; just a few classes were offered via the internet. Now it has grown to 24 percent of our total enrollment and is poised to pass Ottawa as our second largest campus in the coming years.

As a college, we always have had the philosophy of not trying to “force” enrollment, but rather to follow the enrollment trends. Some institutions often place classes where it is most convenient to an employee’s personal schedule, and not student need. You have probably heard stories of students unable to graduate because a certain class was not offered for another year or conflicted with other required courses. At Neosho, we follow the needs of the students and assign times and locations to what we perceive will meet the needs of the greatest number of students based on those trends.

Night classes versus online classes are an example of this. For years, we had a large offering of these courses, only to see the enrollment dwindle year after year in some cases, while online classes filled instantly. Night classes help working adults in meeting their needs, but they still require the student to be available in the evening. Finding childcare or getting time away from work to attend classes can be a big issue even for night offerings. But with online classes, you can work on the class at any time in the week that you want to — your schedule not ours. We followed this enrollment trend and offered more and more online classes while cutting back on night classes, and we have grown because of it.

When the economy is bad, enrollment is up at America’s community colleges as more people go back to college to get retrained for jobs that are currently open. From 2008 until last year, we saw incredible increases in enrollment because of this, but now, especially in Franklin County, we are seeing unemployment numbers drop and our enrollment along with it. Don’t get me wrong, this is great for the region, just not good for enrollment.  

Also, at our Ottawa campus we have provided courses for University of Kansas students for many years called Western Civilization I and II and we had a very robust enrollment in those courses. This year, KU no longer requires them for all majors, and our enrollment dropped further. As a result of these two trends, enrollment has fallen about 13 percent at Ottawa. So we’ve looked elsewhere for areas to help spur growth.

Here’s something most people don’t know about community college state aid in Kansas: If Neosho grows significantly, say doubling our enrollment for instance, guess how much state aid we will get for that growth? The answer: zero. If Neosho loses half of its enrollment, it’s the same story: zero. That’s right. It doesn’t matter if we grow or shrink. We get the same check from the state.  

As a result of a “hold harmless” policy, combined with no new money for general education for several years, a college’s allocation is no longer tied to enrollment. Institutions that have shrunk over the past few years keep getting the same money, while colleges like Neosho that have grown as a whole keep getting the same money as well. (A note for accuracy here: For those technical education classes in the high school, Neosho does get more money if enrollment grows, but that is a small part of everything we offer.)  

The only incentive to grow, therefore, is increased tuition dollars. However, the money earned from tuition often does not pay for the costs of offering a particular class, especially in technical education. A college could put itself out of business by growing too quickly and in the wrong areas. We need increases in state aid to offset those costs, and it simply does not exist. Tuition becomes more and more important  to have the money to run the college.  

In fact, the Legislature’s two-year budget, passed in May, calls for a 1.5-percent decrease to community college funding for the 2014-2015 academic year. If that stands, we might grow in enrollment next year and get about $50,000 less state aid. That loss will raise tuition $1 a credit hour just to put the money back, before one even considers other things like utility and health care cost increases that raise the budget year after year.  

There is talk of a “re-centering” plan for state technical education funding that would remove money from the shrinking community and technical colleges and give it to the growing ones, but, as you can imagine, those that are set to lose money are asking for that not to happen. Some will lose in the neighborhood of $800,000 to $900,000 a year if the plan goes through. Neosho would get about $300,000 more for our technical education. I’ll let you know if that becomes a reality. My thinking is that if it does happen, it will have to be phased in slowly over a period of years so that the “losing” colleges have the opportunity to adjust.

So while I’m very happy that enrollment continues to rise at Neosho thanks to diversification, I just wish the state aid would go up with it.

Brian Inbody is Neosho County Community College president. Email him at binbody@neosho.edu

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