In Focus: College of the Redwoods budget woes

January 31, 2007 11:00 pm
Slumping enrollment and less state aid is forcing campuses in the Collge of the Redwoods system to trim their budgets. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Slumping enrollment and less state aid is forcing campuses in the Collge of the Redwoods system to trim their budgets. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

Though College of the Redwoods-Del Norte offers fewer classes this semester, some minor shifts may have kept its enrollment from plummeting.

"We've leveled off this semester at the Del Norte campus, which is a positive sign," CR-Del Norte Acting Vice President Ray Geary said.

Though this year's enrollment figures aren't available until next week, Del Norte projects 452 full-time equivalent students this school year. While down from previous years, it is higher than the college's earlier projection of 430.

A full-time equivalent student is figured by the total credits all students take in a year, divided by a full-time load of 30 credits. So if three students take 10 credits throughout the year, they're considered one full-timer, which equates to $4,367 in state aid for the college.

Though this year likely won't break the campus' dipping enrollment streak, which has fallen consistently since 2003-2004, Geary said it's an encouraging figure, which is likely a result of changes directed at students.

This semester tuition dropped from $26 to $20 per credit, the time frame to add classes was extended from one day to a week, class waiting lists increased from five students to seven and students enrolled in remedial classes now can take "personal enrichment" courses concurrently.

"We've loosened up some of those restrictions," said college spokesman Paul DeMark. "We're listening to what the students have to say and responding to them."

Dwindling enrollment district-wide has plagued the Eureka-based community college the past four years. Fewer full-time equivalent students means less money given to the college from the state, and therefore a smaller budget for the college to work with.

In November the college learned of a $3 million budget shortfall that could yet rise to $4 million. This resulted from fluctuating enrollment district-wide, which took the largest fall in 2004-2005 — a 9.8 percent drop from the previous year's full-time equivalent student population, which dipped from 5,515 to 4,974 that year.

Though Geary said he's not aware of plans to cut staffing locally, he added "We're going to be tightening our belts."

Slumping enrollment has been at the forefront for a few years, Geary said, so the college has been proactive in not filling positions it can hold off on.

One of these positions, a full-time psychology and sociology professor, was advertised in local newspapers a few months ago but has since been put on hold, Geary said.

"We have a limited budget," he said, adding that there's no money to spend on anything that's not directly related to students. "So we're going to be very careful and direct with our expenditures."

Not only does this mean fewer classes but also waiting to replace outdated personal computers for faculty and scaling back on classroom enhancement projects, such as installing elaborate sound systems, Geary said.

"We might have to go with something that is adequate, that still meets classroom standards, but isn't over the top," he said.

But ongoing projects that already have been promised through a bond measure — college facility reconstruction — will still move ahead as planned, "which will greatly enhance our educational environment," Geary said. "We're still able to get things with the monies we have, but we can't do everything."

And though CR-Del Norte is one of five instructional sites, "really, we're not as impacted here as probably the Eureka campus would be," he said.

The college still has a few hurdles to clear before it can breathe easy, however.

In January 2006 the college was put on an extended warning by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and told to work on integrating planning and evaluation related to the budget process, dealing with its financial crunch and dissipating reserves, and reinstating an institutional research office to ensure hard data on enrollment trends, student demographics, students' post-CR plans, factors that determine student success at the college and what the community's real needs are, are collected.

The college should hear back from the commission this spring and in March will send an interim report showing the progress it's made, DeMark said.

Also, funds that the state provides for both the Del Norte and Mendocino campus may not be as much as initially believed.

The state told CR it would receive $750,000 each for the branch campuses, but in November dropped that figure to $250,000.

But even though the state dropped that figure, "it hasn't been determined what we're going to get for sure yet," DeMark said.

The college's reserve fund, which the Board of Trustees recently dipped into to cover the budget, sat at $892,334, or 2.9 percent of operating costs on Oct. 31. That's well below the state's 5 percent mandate and the board's 6 percent preference.

But CR has a plan to dig itself out of the financial hole it's currently laying in, including attracting more students at an earlier age, officials say.

Keith Snow-Flamer, vice president of student services and learning support, said that before he took his post in August CR wasn't actively recruiting students before he showed up.

He's already started surveying students on whether course time offerings work well with their schedules and plans to assess first-year students' needs along with asking all students what's important to them at the community college.

Getting more high school students to co-enroll is also on his list, as well as getting the word out to middle and elementary school students that the college is relatively cheap and accessible.

"I would love for them to have tours of the campus," Snow-Flamer said.

Geary said he's already marketed the college's offerings through advertisements and plans to continue doing so.

"I don't think there's any other prescription for success as there is in a degree in higher education," he said. "CR is probably the No. 1 opportunity in this community for people to become successful."

•••••

Ups and downs

College of the Redwoods-Del Norte's full-time equivalent students has fallen and risen in recent years:

•2001-2002: 559

•2002-2003: 563

•2003-2004: 597

•2004-2005: 478

•2005-2006: 467

•2006-2007: 452 (projected)

SOURCE: College of the Redwoods