State funding fails, and a local solution

The college is facing funding cuts from the state and low enrollment numbers. What steps are being taken to secure the future of higher education in Clackamas County? Jeff Shaffer, interim VP of Finance, Operations and Strategic Partnerships at Clackamas Community College, was kind enough to try to answer some of the questions about the future of our funding.

Over the course of the interview, Shaffer shared a lot of information: One of the largest parts of this monetary problem is enrollment. The student shortfall started before the pandemic, but unlike COVID-19, there isn’t a vaccine and it hasn’t relented. A 40% reduction in the student population is not an easy hurdle to overcome, but the lack of students has; in its own way, according to Shaffer, been helpful in saving the college some money. When a couple thousand students stop attending, there is a lot of unutilized space. The school saves a lot on maintenance, utilities, janitorial, and more when parts of the campus stay lightly occupied.

Shaffer says there’s more fat to be cut in other areas as well, underused services that cost the college a lot, but allow for a more inclusive environment on campus. Many of these can’t be mentioned now, as the budgetary concerns and accompanying fixes aren’t yet set in stone. What can be said, is that the higher-ups are finding ways of keeping services in place, without hemorrhaging funds on unnecessary parts. The overall college experience will not suffer.

Another major contributor to the budgetary gaps is the state. The Governor’s Office is trying to cut funding for already struggling community colleges across the state. While the college is experiencing a 22% deficit, Salem is only proposing a 6% bump. A 16% point divide is a lot to make up for.  The 6% proposed by the state is a finger bandage on a broken leg, hardly the help we need and not enough to stand on.

I was also fortunate to speak with Tara Sprehe, Dean of Academic Foundations and Connections at CCC. She is an integral part of the Strategic Enrollment Management team at the college. The SEM targets new students, across a wide demographic and tries to get them enrolled.  While it looks like things won’t return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, Sprehe’s team have given themselves some far more realistic targets to hit. An increase of five-hundred, full-time-equivalent students, and an overall increase from 18,800 students to 20,700. While that’s not going to solve all the problems, it’s going to make the overall budget situation easier to manage.  

Sprehe made it abundantly clear that enrollment is only part of the issue and that the state needs to increase efforts in funding our local community colleges. With fewer prospective students, higher costs and reduced government funding, these institutions are involved in a dangerous balancing act with present and future careers at stake.

Sprehe said that the school is forecasting a 5-6% increase in the student body next year. It’s the most hopeful option on the table, a natural increase in population. If enrollment stays at current levels, we won’t be able to continue cutting the budget year after year. Other solutions, some not so easy to swallow, need to be considered. Increases to the credit hour fees associated with tuition will probably need to be instituted. Transportations services might be the next to go, followed by more of what you might expect, cuts in staffing, curriculum, even the campus squirrels might be asked to leave (just kidding, they’re squatting here and wouldn’t listen anyway.)

Sprehe and the team are tactical in their approach to getting new students in the door and helping them stay here. 

Debra Mason, CCC Foundation Executive Director spoke with The Print as well. While the Foundation doesn’t directly fund the school, it increases enrollment by helping those in financial need stay in school. A major concern raised by the director is that not enough students that qualify for assistance know about available funding. These emergency grants can help with rent, childcare, car insurance and any major living expenses the student might have trouble paying for. It’s an amazing lifeline for those in need, and there for the taking if you qualify.

Events happen throughout the year, the Rise Up Luncheon coming up on May 17, is the next event we spoke about. This fundraising event will be held at the Abernathy Center on Washington Street, and the focus is highlighting success stories from students the CCC foundation has helped. It’s a wonderful way of giving back to the school and community that really makes a difference. Mason really believes in what the foundation is doing, and improving the funding and its capacity to help students achieve their goals seems like a real calling for her. “People’s lives are being changed, creating an opportunity for themselves and that starts here. The Foundation is here for support, we are servants of the students, and that’s why I love this work.”

Bottom line is we must get more people interested in attending college that might not enroll without some encouragement. Current students sometimes need extra support to stay the course and finish their degrees. The state funding for higher education could use some enhancement. Change is needed system wide. Without reforms to the state and federal education systems, students will remain frightened of the debt they will surely incur and the time it will require to pay it off.

The future of our college is bright despite a few financial hurdles to overcome. Great people are working hard to ensure the quality of our education and need our support to continue to provide a high-quality, affordable college experience. We all have work to do as members of the student body and the community to continue this for future generations of students. There are so many ways to help and they can’t all be addressed in this article, so here’s a couple ideas: contact your state representative or local officials to encourage spending our tax dollars in effective ways. Talk to the CCC Foundation about volunteer opportunities. Get out there, support this school and help avoid future funding problems. Go Cougars!

Gabriel Lucich