Facing Steep Enrollment Declines, Fiscal Cliff, Community Colleges Accelerate Advisor Hiring

Enrollment at Connecticut’s community colleges suffered a “dramatic drop off” during the pandemic, falling to 19,000 students this year from a peak of 35,000 over the last decade — posing a significant financial risk to the Connecticut State Colleges and University system unless the decline is reversed before federal aid runs out in 2025.

In response, the Board of Regents has announced plans to accelerate the hiring of 174 academic advisors, part of a nationwide “Guided Pathways” program currently being piloted at 3 of the state’s colleges to help improve enrollment, retention and graduation rates. The accelerated program comes at a cost of about $55 million, of which about $39.5 million will be paid for with federal funds. 

Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes said during a budget presentation at a Board of Regents meeting on June 24 that enrollment would be one of the largest factors in determining the financial health of the community colleges over the next few years. 

“If we do not recover our enrollment … by the fall of 2022, we will need to use reserves and entertain significant cost reductions in order to operate the following year,” he said. “By the third year out, fall of 2023, those difficult choices could become even more challenging and acute.” 

Connecticut is not the only state reporting significant  declines in enrollment. The State University of New York, or SUNY, system, suffered a 10 percent drop in enrollment at the state community colleges and one percent at the state universities. Massachusetts public colleges and universities reported 6.9 percent 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 reductions, but that the current budget was not sustainable without federal assistance.

“We are in a stable position entirely because of the federal assistance,” said Barnes. 

Barnes said that without the federal funding, the budget reserves would be reduced by $150 million.

“Obviously, that creates an enormous risk for us in the near future, because those federal funds are time-limited,” he said. 

For fiscal year 2022, the system is expected to maintain $138.2 million in reserves at the universities and $47.5 million in reserves at the community colleges, but Barnes warned that this was only possible given the use of $92 million in federal funds for the colleges and universities. 

In the budget for next year, funding from the state accounts for 50 percent of the revenue, and an additional seven percent comes from the federal funds. Tuition accounts for 21 percent of the budget.  

“From my perspective, now is absolutely the time in the community college context to pull out all the stops and to undertake whatever efforts we can to rebuild enrollment as quickly as possible,” Barnes said earlier in a meeting of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee on June 9. 

‘Pulling out all the stops

On June 24, the Board of Regents approved the use of federal coronavirus relief funds to help hire 174 new advisors by next June, speeding up a plan that was already in place to reduce the current student-to-advisor ratio from 750 students per advisor to 250 students per advisor. Barnes said the program would help students enroll and remain in the college until graduation. 

The hiring is part of a model program called Guided Pathways, that is designed to provide students with support for developing a clear plan toward completing a degree, including maps of courses and milestones for each degree program. 

In Connecticut, the introduction of Guided Pathways has already begun at three of the colleges — Middlesex Community College, Northwestern Community College and Housatonic Community College — but the original plan was to phase the program in slowly over a period of three years. 

The program will cost approximately $55 million to implement, $39.5 million of which will be paid for through federal funds. 

The accelerated program raised some concerns among educators, including Dr. David Blitz, a professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University and vice chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee. Blitz said that he was concerned about speeding up the rollout, and about using one-time federal funds to do it. 

“I think it’s a mistake to invest this amount of non-recurring revenues in something which has not yet been tested,” he said. He said the colleges should have continued with the original timeframe and used Middlesex, Northwestern and Housatonic as a pilot. 

Dr. Davis Jenkins, senior Research Scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, and an expert in the Guided Pathways model, told CT Examiner that it normally takes four years to roll out Guided Pathways completely. However, he also recognized the severity of the enrollment problems at Connecticut’s state colleges. 

“Connecticut [community] colleges are going to have to do this, their enrollments are tanking,” he added. “Connecticut Community College enrollments are near the bottom in the country.” 

But he warned that simply hiring a large number of counselors won’t produce the desired results. These counselors have to be connected with specific degree programs and work in tandem with the faculty in order to effectively help students. 

“The only way we’ve seen this work is if counselors are embedded in fields,” he said. “Just hiring more counselors is not enough, you need to reorganize around programs.” 

Blitz told CT Examiner that he thought hiring 174 counselors at different levels of management all at the same time would create a “clumsy sort of organization,” that would need to be integrated into the work of the faculty. 

But at the Board of Regents meeting in June, Interim President Dr. Jane Gates said that Guided Pathways has shown proven results in community colleges across the country. 

“Academic advising has long been an area where we have fallen short,” said Gates. “Guided Pathways is a holistic process that from the beginning of the students’ entry into our universities, we have the end in mind.” 

According to a report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, at least 250 community colleges across the country had implemented Guided Pathways by spring 2018, and were reporting positive results. 

Lorain County Community College in Ohio, which implemented Guided Pathways starting in 2012, reported that the number of students earning three or more credits in the first year of their program area increased from 19 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 30 percent 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 implemented Guided Pathways, reported that between fall of 2011 and fall of 2015, two-year graduation rates rose 10 percent for Black students, 10 percent for white students and 13 percent for Latino students. Other colleges, including Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee and Alamo College District in Texas have also reported positive results from the program. 

Gates said in an email to CT Examiner that the board had studied the success of other colleges and were using it to inform their own work. 

“This is a process that has been ongoing for several years in Connecticut, and the accelerated pace of hiring will only ensure we can better serve our students when Guided Pathways is fully implemented,” she wrote. 

Kerry Kelley, interim chief financial officer for the Connecticut State Community College, said at the June 9 meeting that Guided Pathways is one part of a broad array of changes including a redesign of admissions, simplified areas of study and alignment of certain courses. 

Blitz told CT Examiner that he’s also concerned that the program will not be able to sustain itself after the federal relief funds run out in two years, given that the counselor salaries will still need to be paid in fiscal year 2024.

But Barnes predicted that the cost of the program would be offset by the retention in student enrollment. He estimated that in 2025, the year that all the federal funds run out, the program will be self-sustaining. 

According to his projections, the college will receive an additional $34.57 million from FY 2022-2024 due to increased student retention. 

According to Jenkins, early reports do suggest that improved enrollment will eventually cover the costs of the program, but that it would usually require two or three years before the colleges see results.

Jenkins said that the Guided Pathways has been shown to increase student retention and outcomes overall, but has not narrowed the gaps between white students and students of color. For that to happen, he said, community colleges needed to reach out to young adults before they entered the colleges — by forming partnerships with high schools, encouraging dual enrollment programs and directly contacting parents to inform them of the options available for their children. 

In spite of these caveats, Jenkins said he thinks that investing CARES money into hiring more counselors will benefit the colleges.

“I think anything they do along these lines actually is going to help them,” he said. “I think this is a good move, but it’s going to take a while, and we would implore them to really think about really connecting students to a field and a plan and people in fields they are interested in.” 

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