Community colleges in the crosshairs: Merging colleges could save money, but erode meaning for county
Local and state leaders in Western North Carolina are vigorously opposing a cost-savings plan to consolidate administrations of 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, including those of Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.
A joint state legislative committee on government efficiency has recommended merging the leadership of community colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students. The group said this would save taxpayers about $5 million a year.
“I’m still not clear in my own mind about what exactly we are try to accomplish through this, except to save a little bit on administration,” said Bill Upton, a Haywood County commissioner and a retired educator of 38 years. “But what is it going to cost? Ultimately, I think it would be the staff and students who would suffer.”
Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system, agreed with Upton, saying what isn’t clear on a simple spreadsheet “is the role of community in community colleges.”
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“HCC, for example, is the best community college in the nation — for Haywood County,” Ralls said in an interview last week at Haywood Community College. He was in town for a meeting of the state’s community college presidents.
Over the decades, counties and schools such as Haywood County and HCC have together created this community-unique college, Ralls said, with the programs and the instructors tailored to fit the needs of Haywood County’s residents. Start lumping the leadership of various community colleges together, and you risk destroying what is arguably one of the best community college systems in the U.S., he said.
“The nature of these colleges would not be as colleges anymore, but as the campuses of other colleges,” Ralls said.
Any potential savings would be negated by the heavy toll, in terms of the loss of its colleges, to the communities involved, Ralls said.
HCC President Rose Johnson serves as an example of what intricate roles a community college leader plays in the lives of residents. Johnson became president of HCC in January 2006.
She helped start a green initiative through the chamber. She has volunteered on the elk project in Cataloochee Valley. And Johnson has worked directly with local businesses such as Evergreen Packaging to tailor employee training.
President Ralls said the smaller, rural colleges listed in the report for consolidation provide education and training in 36 counties with an average unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to the current state average of 9.7 percent. They include nearly half of the state’s 40 most economically depressed counties.
Additionally, 23 percent of the funding for the state community college systems comes now via the support of local county commission boards.
On a practical level, Ralls said, how willing will those community leaders be to keep chipping in dollars if local control is jerked away?
Local support could erode, but savings could mount
Probably not very willing at all, said Conrad Burrell, chairman of Southwestern Community College’s Board of Trustees and a former Jackson County commissioner.
“The state’s system was created to serve the needs of the community, and this would be taking away from the community,” Burrell said. “We’re all different, with each of our colleges responding to the differences in the communities. I feel this would be detrimental, and it would be wrong.”
But on paper, and given the difficult economic times, the proposal would appear to have merits. Additionally, SCC seems to exist as a perfect model of how multiple counties actually can be served — and served very well indeed — by a centralized administration. SCC is headquartered in Sylva, with facilities in Macon, Swain, Cashiers and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Twenty community colleges in North Carolina, such as SCC, already currently serve more than one county.
“The high level of local control that allows colleges leeway in how they implement administrative structures and activities is staunchly supported by college administrators, but it reduces the efficiency of the colleges and the system office,” the report notes. “Back-office functions — administrative activities that do not necessarily require face-to-face interactions, such as payroll or receiving — are performed at every college, resulting in 58 iterations of each activity.”
It’s cheaper per student, too, the larger the college, with the report finding that cost ranged from $447 to $1,679 for each student. As for administrative costs at colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students, the cost per student averaged $983; this compared with $647 at larger institutions.
“Larger colleges benefited from economies of scale,” the report notes.
The mergers would involve combining the administrations of two or more colleges into one, creating a multi-campus college. The government group suggested such functions such as senior administration, financial services, human resources, public information, institutional information and information technology could merge.
In turn, the newly merged administration would determine the staff needed at each campus to ensure smooth operations of the college.
The State Board of Community Colleges would be responsible for determining the actual number of mergers based on the groupings of colleges selected. The government group noted that, assuming each merger involves two schools within 30 miles of each other, at least one of which is a small school, there would be 15 mergers. However, the system could opt to merge three or more schools to create one multi-campus college under the recommendation.
Not so fast
But those educators actually working in the state community college system warn to look deeper.
“If you’re just materialistic in looking at the numbers, maybe it looks good,” said Donald Tomas, who became SCC’s president just at the beginning of this month. “SCC is sitting at 2,800 students right now, with double-digit growth (over the past few years) — are they projecting all this out a few years?”
An apparent lack of projecting into the future contained in the report, and of getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers actually used to compile the recommendations, is what Tomas said disturbs him the most when he looks at such sweeping recommendations.
“What is the criteria that they are using?” he said. “If you just look at the savings it all sounds good. Until, that is, you get behind the scenes and really try to understand what they are looking at.”
Tomas seems to make a valid point: the report, one that if adopted would make irrevocable changes in the name of saving dollars to North Carolina’s community college system, is just 32 pages in length. It does not assess the rapid growth currently being experienced by the state’s community colleges and how that will play out in the future, nor does it discuss more abstract concepts, including whether there would be continuing local funding support if the recommendations were adopted.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the community college system in North Carolina: The state’s community colleges serve some 243,854 fulltime students, with enrollment over the past few years (since the recession started) increasing by 28 percent, with no drop in numbers anticipated, according to President Ralls.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as the vice chancellor of administration and finance for Western Carolina University before retiring after a 30-year career as an educator, said he believes there are too many unanswered questions to take such a huge gamble for relatively small apparent gain.
“Obviously, the identity with a local community college is important to each county and its citizens,” Wooten said in an email. “I believe commissioners will not be as interested in allocating funds for a community college if the local identity is lost. Certainly, there are some efficiencies to be gained by eliminating duplicative administrative positions; however, the local county will be impacted by losing jobs.”
Johnson, president of HCC, believes merging colleges — say, HCC and SCC, though the report doesn’t specify particular mergers, only in broad terms merging the ones that are “too” small — would be bitter pills for the communities being pinpointed to swallow. Each community pushed for a community college, usually provided the land needed for the colleges, handed over many dollars over the years, and have taken enormous satisfaction in the colleges that were built.
“I believe it would remove the pride of having a higher-education institution, that was created by the community and sustained by the community for all these years,” Johnson said. “I believe the greatest danger is of losing that community involvement.”
Thom Brooks, SCC’s vice president for instruction and student services, also believes consolidating college administrations would have serious local consequences.
“Our success as a community college is directly attributable to responsive local leadership that ensures that we meet the unique needs of our students and communities in a timely and effective manner,” Brooks said in an email. “I am unaware of many models where education is enhanced through added bureaucracy and long-distance decision making.”
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he’ll oppose any move to merge community colleges, terming the report “pennywise and pound foolish.”
“It is a bad idea,” Rapp said, “and it would undercut local autonomy.”
That said, Rapp also emphasized the report points out some areas for increased efficiencies in the state community college system, particularly through combined purchasing power.
President Ralls said there has been movement in that direction, and noted that in recent months the community college system has sought private-sector advice on saving money through collaborative purchasing.
Ralls said while he did not want to dismiss the importance of potentially saving $5 million a year, the truth is the potential savings through mergers represent just .04 percent of an overall education budget of $11.9 billion.
He wrote in summation to the Program Evaluation Division’s recommendation that compiled the recommendations, “I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change to our state, our citizens’ access to education, our communities and our colleges.”