I’ve just been asked to cut more Sociology classes from our spring schedule. It’s the second time we’ve pared classes from our spring schedule and unfortunately I had to comply with the administration’s request. We’re not losing students – in fact, we grew by 8% this fall semester – a rate unheard of in recent years. That 8% growth happened even though we were turning students away because we had no room for them in our classrooms.
Why cut classes when we have “too many” students?
The answer is our state budget is being slashed and we are a public institution. Our charge as a community college is to serve the educational needs of our community. Yet this mission is becoming increasingly impossible. Our community is clamoring for various types of education, and in turn we provide a large variety of courses and programs. Yet we have to cut classes to help our state balance its budget.
In the long run we are in a no-win situation.
Generally, we are funded based on previous years of enrollments – paid per student at different rates for different types of courses. Our district gives us targets to grow at a particular rate every year – typically 2-3%. If we make the same enrollments as in previous years, our budget remains the same.
When we have students trying to enroll in closed classes, we typically add classes because this allows us to grow and meet the district (and state) imposed growth targets. If we go over those targets, we don’t get any additional money for that “unfunded growth”. (Despite the fact that the students’ fees go straight into the state coffers.) We do have to pay the instructors and other staff because they are teaching those courses, and this situation will put us into deficit.
Here's the paradox: when we have fewer enrollments, we also go into deficit because we have fewer students. In this situation, we are expected to pay the excess money back if that same pattern lasts more than a year. As you might imagine, because of this system we often face deficits.
Alternatively, when the state cuts the education budget, our budget is cut back and we are forced to cut classes, since that’s the only control we have over our budget. Cutting classes means fewer faculty jobs and less need for other staffing, so our labor costs decline. Note that cutting classes, faculty, and staff also means that we lose students since we won’t offer classes in which they can enroll. That in turn can create a deficit for us because we may not reach those targets I mentioned earlier.
Are you getting a sense of how convoluted this system is? Even though this semester we had 8% enrollment growth and had scheduled our same spring courses with some anticipated growth we are now cutting that schedule by at least 10%, and probably more.
Because of the state of our economy, we know that we will have more students appear at our doors next spring and the following fall, not to mention our winter and summer intercessions. The 8% growth this semester was due to the economic problems that will most likely continue for some time. Our transfer universities have also announced they will limit their enrollments, thus forcing more of their students to take classes with us. We anticipate that we will have many more potential students than we had already expected.
The problem is – we won’t have any classes for them to take!
Education is a societal institution that ensures our future by sustaining our society and enabling it to thrive. One crucial step out of a recession is to (re)train people and get better matches between people, skills, and jobs – a process that is best done in schools such as community colleges. No matter how we restructure our economy, education will continue to be a key component of our society’s infrastructure. Cutting educational budgets at any level is not an effective way to solve local, state, national, or international budget issues – it actually hampers our ability as a society to be flexible and respond to the demands of a changing economic and cultural environment. The capitalist imperative to ensure cheap labor through an under-educated underclass is an old policy that does us no favors in our as-yet-to-be-identified re-structured economy.
Conventional wisdom suggests that people who want to get ahead should work hard and go to college. But what if they do and there are no classes for them to take? What do you think this tells us about the realities of public education in the U.S. today?