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Community colleges in Western North Carolina are getting used to the new funding reality — increase enrollment or expect fewer dollars from Raleigh.

The $20.6 billion state budget passed this summer included $1 billion for the state’s 58 community colleges. While that may look like plenty, it’s $16 million less than they received the previous year, and they were already coping with past budget reductions.

On Gov. Pat McCrory’s recommendation, the General Assembly this summer reconfigured the formula by which it had funded the colleges since 1999. Previously, funding was tied to the higher figure between two choices: the previous year’s enrollment total or the average of the last three years’ enrollment. Now, funding is based on the higher of the previous year’s enrollment or the average of the last two year’s enrollment.

The previous formula worked to community colleges’ advantage during the recession, when laid-off workers flocked to the schools. Now, a recovering economy has slowed the pace of enrollment. Under the new formula, the colleges are receiving fewer dollars from the state, though some colleges’ enrollment increases have offset some of the losses.

Less money “presents challenges,” Megen Hoenk, spokeswoman for N.C. Community Colleges, said in an email.

“Community colleges are an incredible value for the state, but we are concerned that cuts we have experienced in recent years are eroding both colleges’ capacity to serve students as well as the quality of services they provide,” Hoenk said. “Our per-student funding has decreased by 20 percent since the beginning of the recession. In order for colleges to effectively educate and train North Carolina’s workforce, an increased investment in community college funding is needed.”

The General Assembly reconfigured the formula as part of its overall quest to cut state costs wherever it can. McCrory has suggested that state funding of community colleges and public universities should be tied to graduation rates from programs that produce good-paying jobs.

Here is how some community colleges in WNC are coping with the decreased funding.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College

A-B Tech has “had the good fortune” to have grown the past few years, college President Hank Dunn said in a telephone interview. This year’s enrollment of 8,113 college-credit students is slightly higher than last year’s, so even with the formula change, A-B Tech received more money than last year — $38.6 million as opposed to $38.5 million.

Decreasing support from the state the past couple of years has meant “slightly” larger class sizes and heavier faculty workloads, Dunn said. And it has slowed the pace of development for a logistics program the college would like to add that would train students in the movement of goods and materials. Community colleges have to fund the costs of new program research themselves, as well as the first year of program implementation. And so A-B Tech is “going slow” in the logistics program development, Dunn said.

“We can’t do all the things we want to do,” he said. “We try to be judicious [with money] and live within our budget means.”

If enrollment continues to grow at its current rate, A-B Tech will receive about the same funding in the future that it does now under the new formula, Dunn said. But if it declines, the two-year rolling average will mean less money from Raleigh. “We’re striving to grow,” Dunn said.

Blue Ridge Community College

Blue Ridge Community College’s decreased enrollment this year means it received $14.3 million this year, slightly less than the $14.6 million it got last year, college President Molly A. Parkhill said. Though the loss of more than $300,000 is painful, it’s not something students in existing programs will feel, she said. But it may affect future students.

“Our current students will not experience loss of services or programs,” Parkhill said via email. “Every reduction has an impact on our students and our ability to provide much needed job training and educational opportunities for residents of Henderson and Transylvania County.

“With the lingering budget cuts, we have not been able to implement new initiatives to enhance or improve programs and services that are critical to student success and progress. However, we have been conservative over the past few years as far as adding new positions and increasing the number of faculty.”

The college added two new faculty members this fall to expand its welding program — an example of the college’s meeting workforce demands, Parkhill said — and to start its new brewing, distillation and fermentation program. The salary money for the latter program is funded through a Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act grant.

Like other colleges and universities around the country, open faculty positions previously held by faculty paid 12 months of the year are being filled with faculty paid for nine months’ work. The college has not filled some non-instructional positions that are vacant because of retirement and attrition.

Tri-County Community College

The formula change meant less money for Tri-County Community College in Murphy. But increased enrollment more than made up for the loss, college President Donna Tipton-Rogers said. It received $8.4 million from the state in 2012-2013. This year, it has received $8.5 million due to the enrollment growth.

The college is still figuring out what impact the formula change will have on its operations. But its mission is unchanged, she said in an email.

“We are constantly seeking to offer education that leads to stackable credentials and will help our students obtain necessary skills and training to be productive in the workforce,” Tipton-Rogers said.

Southwestern Community College

The impact at Southwestern Community College in Sylva has been minimal, said Janet Burnette, the college’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. Its state funding for this academic year is nearly $15.54 million compared to nearly $15.6 million last academic year. The $63,613 difference “wasn’t so significant for us,” she said.

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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