Reality hit hard at Walla Walla Community College on Tuesday when low enrollment collided with the state’s funding formula for two-year schools thus creating a financial mess. WWCC’s current budget is $2.7 million out of synch, which is digging deep into the college’s reserves.
College officials had long anticipated a budget shortfall as the numbers began to firm up over the summer. Yet, that didn’t make things any easier when WWCC President Derek Brandes announced immediate reductions to staff and classes to stave off further financial problems.
This spring, as the Legislature wrapped up writing the state budget, we scolded lawmakers for giving short shrift to the state’s community and technical colleges.
For the past few years, the Legislature has been — appropriately — focuses on fully funding basic education. It pumped $7 billion more in the K-12 system over the past five years, and raised property taxes across the state to pay for it.
The state’s four-year universities have also been getting more financial attention from the Legislature, which allowed those schools to keep tuition costs down.
Meanwhile, the two-year schools have been asked to do more with less, which results in fewer opportunities for students and less ability to make a strong impact on the regional economy that depends on skills training.
“I often feel that community colleges are the forgotten children of higher education,” English professor Phebe Jewell of Seattle Central College said during a two-day walkout of classes last spring to bring attention to the funding inequity.
Well, not much was done then and the harsh reality of the lack of state subsidy for its two-year colleges is now being felt in Walla Walla.
Sixteen staff positions will be cut, although 10 of those jobs are now open because of retirements or resignations.
The solid economy today is a contributing factor to lower enrollments as the job market is hot.
When the economy tanked in 2008, WWCC had 6,670 registered students. The economy has long since rebounded and enrollment in the last school year was 4,573 students. Enrollment is down across Washington’s community colleges.
WWCC and the nearly three dozen community and technical colleges help prepare thousands of students each year for careers or and thousands more with an affordable start on four-year degrees. These schools play an essential role in our state’s economy, which is something that seems to be undervalued
That can’t continue.
WWCC will weather this school years as it has in recent years.
Brandes said keeping employees and program offerings over the past few years has cut in half WWCC’s reserve fund, from the 20 percent of its operating budget called for by board policy to 10 percent, or about $3.2 million.
The Legislature needs to step in to provide funding to ensure the sustainability of WWCC and the community and technical colleges.