As the economy improves, community colleges cut costs and jobs

The rebounding U.S. economy may be bringing relief to some, but for community colleges it’s cause for cutbacks and layoffs.

Johnson County Community College president Joe Sopcich announced Friday that the school is chopping $3.7 million from its budget in salaries and benefits and putting a moratorium on hiring. The move is the latest in a series of cost-cutting measures JCCC and other community colleges in the area have been going through.

JCCC has laid off 50 people from its staff since 2011. That year alone, reductions in budget items — including contracted services, travel, supply costs and memberships — saved the school $6.2 million.

The economic fall and rise has made budgeting “so unpredictable,” Sopcich said.

“Our projections calling for annual increases in enrollment and state aid (this year) were overly optimistic and unrealistic,” he told the campus community Friday. “What we are seeing now is higher education’s response to the economic reality.”

What’s happening at the college in Overland Park is a trend across the country.

Community colleges experienced an enrollment boom from 2009 to 2011. That increase in enrollment was the result of a struggling economy that sent hundreds of out-of-work people back to school looking for training to increase income potential or expand career options.

But as the economy picked up, people went back to work and the flow of students slowed. Fewer students mean less tuition and shrinking revenue for community colleges.

JCCC’s enrollment last fall was 19,684, down from 21,033 two years earlier.

Sopcich estimated that JCCC, Metropolitan Community College and Kansas City Kansas Community College combined are responsible for educating more than 70,000 students in the area. What happens to community colleges, he said, “has a significant impact on the community.”

At Kansas City Kansas Community College, tuition makes up 19 percent of the budget. Enrollment has dropped from 7,400 in 2011 to 6,200 today, costing the school more than $1 million in tuition revenue, said Brian Bode, a school vice president.

“That is significant,” Bode said. “In a $60 million budget, losing a million dollars hurts.”

The school is getting rid of program duplications, restructuring, consolidating “and becoming more efficient,” he said. “We are tightening our belt considerably.”

Bode said his community college is peering into every aspect of the operation to cut spending, such as supplies and reductions in part-time staff and adjunct professors who no longer have classes to teach.

“Kansas City Kansas Community College absorbed most of the added student count from the 2008–2011 time frame with minimal increases in full-time staff or faculty,” Bode said.

“We increased part-time staff and adjunct faculty during these time frames so that we were able to meet the demand quickly, yet remain flexible if the trend upward didn’t continue. That flexibility is helping us cope today.”

Administrators for Metropolitan Community College’s five campuses said they had suspected enrollment would eventually drop and ahead of the decline started looking for budget trims in all academic, administrative and community functions.

“We have probably cut 100 positions in the last two years,” said chancellor Mark James. “We have cut millions of dollars out of variable expenses and there is no fat there.”

Between 50 and 80 positions, mostly staff and administration, remain vacant at MCC, he said.

James and other community college leaders said they are waiting for enrollment to level off.

“I think the enrollment will find its mark sooner rather than later,” James said.

He and leadership teams from other community colleges in the area met as recently as Wednesday to discuss how community college operations and finances will look when enrollment settles.

“We are trying to be entrepreneurial and recognize that we can’t keep doing the same things we have been doing.”