Faced with sharp drop in enrollment, Fiscal Cliff, community colleges step up hiring of counselors – The Connecticut Examiner
Enrollment at Connecticut community colleges suffered a “dramatic drop” during the pandemic, dropping to 19,000 students this year from a peak of 35,000 over the past decade – posing a significant financial risk to the college system. Connecticut colleges and universities unless the drop is reversed before federal aid expires in 2025.
In response, the Board of Regents announced plans to accelerate the hiring of 174 educational advisors, as part of a national “guided trails” program currently being piloted at 3 of the state’s colleges to help. improve enrollment, retention and graduation rates. The fast-track program costs approximately $ 55 million, of which approximately $ 39.5 million will be funded by federal funds.
Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes said during a budget presentation at a June 24 board meeting that enrollment would be one of the most important factors in determining the financial health of community colleges during the next few years.
“If we don’t get our workforce back… by fall 2022, we will have to use reserves and consider significant cost reductions in order to operate the following year,” he said. “By the third year, in the fall of 2023, those tough choices could become even more difficult and acute.”
Connecticut isn’t the only state to report a significant drop in registrations. The State University of New York, or SUNY, system suffered a 10% drop in enrollment at state community colleges and a 1% drop in state universities. Massachusetts public colleges and universities reported a 6.9% drop in enrollment, the largest in 25 years.
At the meeting, Barnes said it was a “relief” to present a budget that did not include “significant” austerity measures or service cuts, but that the current budget was not sustainable without federal aid.
“We are in a stable position entirely thanks to federal assistance,” Barnes said.
Barnes said without the federal funding, budget reserves would be reduced by $ 150 million.
“Obviously, this creates a huge risk for us in the near future because these federal funds are limited in time,” he said.
For fiscal 2022, the system is expected to maintain $ 138.2 million in university reserves and $ 47.5 million in community college reserves, but Barnes warned that this was only possible with the use of $ 92 million in federal funds for colleges and universities. .
In next year’s budget, state funding accounts for 50 percent of revenue, with an additional seven percent coming from federal funds. Tuition fees represent 21% of the budget.
“From my perspective, it is absolutely time, in the context of community colleges, to do everything and make every effort to restore enrollment as quickly as possible,” Barnes said earlier in a speech. Finance and Infrastructure Committee meeting on June 9.
‘Pulling all the stops‘
On June 24, the Board of Regents approved the use of federal coronavirus relief funds to help hire 174 new counselors by next June, accelerating a plan that was already in place to reduce the current student-to-counselor ratio. of 750 students per advisor. to 250 students per advisor. Barnes said the program will help students enroll and stay in college until graduation.
Hiring is part of a model program called Guided Pathways, designed to help students develop a clear plan to earn a degree, including course maps and milestones for each degree program.
In Connecticut, the introduction of Guided Pathways has already started at three of the colleges – Middlesex Community College, Northwestern Community College, and Housatonic Community College – but the original plan was to phase in the program over a three-year period.
The program will cost approximately $ 55 million to implement, of which $ 39.5 million will be funded by federal funds.
The fast-track program has raised some concerns among educators, including Dr. David Blitz, professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University and vice chair of the faculty’s advisory committee. Blitz said he was concerned about speeding up the deployment and using one-time federal funds to do so.
“I think it’s a mistake to invest this amount of one-time income in something that hasn’t been tested yet,” he said. He said colleges should have continued with the original schedule and used Middlesex, Northwestern and Housatonic as their pilot.
Dr Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and expert on the Guided Pathways model, told CT Examiner that it normally takes four years to fully deploy Guided Pathways. However, he also acknowledged the seriousness of the problems with enrollment at Connecticut state colleges.
“Connecticut [community] colleges will have to do it, their registrations are falling, ”he added. “Connecticut Community College enrollments are almost the lowest in the country. ”
But he warned that simply hiring a large number of advisers will not produce the desired results. These counselors must be linked to specific study programs and work in tandem with faculty in order to effectively support students.
“The only way we’ve seen this work is if the advisers are integrated into the fields,” he said. “It’s not enough to just hire more advisors, you have to reorganize yourself around the programs. ”
Blitz told CT Examiner that he believes that hiring 174 advisers at different management levels at the same time would create a “kind of clumsy organization,” which should be built into the work of the faculty.
But at the board meeting in June, interim president Dr. Jane Gates said Guided Pathways has shown proven results in community colleges across the country.
“Academic counseling has long been an area where we have failed,” said Gates. “Guided tours are a holistic process which, from the start of students entering our universities, has the end in mind. ”
According to a report by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, at least 250 community colleges across the country had implemented guided courses as of spring 2018 and were reporting positive results.
Lorain County Community College in Ohio, which implemented guided courses starting in 2012, reported that the number of students earning three or more credits in the first year of their program has increased by 19% during the 2010-2011 school year to 30% in 2014. -15. The college also reported higher graduation rates and a drop in the number of excess credits taken by students.
Indian River State College in Florida, which also has guided courses in place, reported that between fall 2011 and fall 2015, two-year graduation rates rose 10% for black students, from 10% for white students and 13% for Latino students. Other colleges, including Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee, and the Alamo College District in Texas, have also reported positive results from the program.
Gates said in an email to CT Examiner that the board has studied the success of other colleges and is using it to inform their own work.
“This is a process that has been going on for several years in Connecticut, and the accelerated pace of hiring will only ensure that we can better serve our students when Guided Pathways is fully implemented,” he said. she writes.
Kerry Kelley, interim financial director for Connecticut State Community College, said at the June 9 meeting that Guided Pathways is part of a wide range of changes, including an overhaul of admissions, streamlined fields of study and the alignment of certain courses.
Blitz told CT Examiner he also worries the program may not be able to continue after federal relief funds run out in two years, given that advisers’ salaries will still have to be paid in fiscal year 2024. .
But Barnes predicted that the cost of the program would be offset by the retention of enrolled students. He estimated that by 2025, the year when all federal funds are exhausted, the program will be self-sustaining.
According to its projections, the college will receive an additional $ 34.57 million in the 2022-2024 fiscal year due to increased student retention.
According to Jenkins, early reports suggest that improved enrollment will eventually cover the costs of the program, but it would typically take two or three years before colleges see results.
Jenkins said that guided journeys have been shown to increase student retention and results overall, but have not reduced the gaps between white students and students of color. For that to happen, he said, community colleges need to reach out to young adults before they enter colleges – forming partnerships with high schools, encouraging dual enrollment programs, and contacting directly. parents to inform them of the options available to their children.
Despite these caveats, Jenkins said he believes investing CARES money into hiring more counselors would benefit colleges.
“I think whatever they do in that direction is actually going to help them,” he said. “I think it’s a good decision, but it’s going to take a while, and we implore them to really think about really connecting students to an area and a plan and to people in the areas that interest them.”