ALBANY — Community colleges owned by the State University of New York will prioritize cutting administrative jobs and staff to offset revenue gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said, as executives proposed $46 million cuts to state community colleges over the next two years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed $35 million in cuts to community colleges this year and another $11 million next year citing ongoing enrollment decline.
Officials project a $39 billion revenue loss over four years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including losses of $11.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021 and $9.8 billion in FY 2022.
SUNY’s enrollment is down 5.3% year-over-year, but enrollment decline in state universities and community colleges has been an issue for the past decade, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said during testimony Thursday at a legislative budget hearing on higher education.
“However, while the pandemic may have exacerbated the challenges, it did not create them,” Malatras said. “Overall, our enrollment has declined 16% over the past 10 years.”
Thursday’s joint legislative budget hearing marked the sixth of 13 scheduled sessions with the Senate and Assembly to pose questions to state departments and agencies ahead of the April 1 budget deadline.
Columbia-Greene Community College cut 21 staff positions, including 16 part-time in May 2020 and five full-time positions Sept. 1, or before the start of the fall semester.
The positions, included a vice president post, were permanently eliminated because of financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty, or teaching positions, were not affected.
The college also furloughed three employees, saving about $520,000 in its 2021-22 budget when combined with the staffing cuts.
“What we have done, we were a little bit ahead of the game,” Columbia-Greene Community College President Carlee Drummer said of the cuts. “We had a budget reduction already when the pandemic hit, so we had been proactive in the late summer. ...We went about that in such a way that we did not want to harm the operations of the college with respect to student service.”
The college spent about $1.27 million of its $3.4 million reserve fund, leaving more than $2 million remaining, C-GCC Chief Financial Officer Dianne Topple said.
College administrators do not anticipate additional cuts, Drummer said, as the college’s budget, which runs from Sept. 1 through the following Aug. 31, already reflects the position cuts and reserve spending.
“Nothing is a guarantee, but our budget is in place for the current fiscal year,” she said.
Community colleges were cut by $226 per full-time equivalent student in Cuomo’s proposed budget, in addition to $56 million in cuts over the past three years. The state-operated institutions were cut $150 million, added to $619 million over the past three years, according to SUNY.edu.
College officials are hopeful the state’s proposed cuts will be smaller than anticipated depending on the amount New York receives in federal aid, which is expected in subsequent COVID-19 relief packages under President Joe Biden.
“That money is contingent on money from the federal government,” Topple said. “We’re still kind of in limbo. We’re seeing how those state numbers could change if that [$15 billion] doesn’t come through from the federal government.”
Columbia-Greene Community College did not eliminate student programs or services to date, Drummer said.
“These are tough decisions to make and tough times demand tough decisions,” the college president said. “Right now, we have been able to hold on and not cut programs. We really don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to impact students in a detrimental way.”
The projected budget reductions to statewide community colleges comes on the heels of enrollment decline that precedes the pandemic.
The college in Greenport, one of SUNY’s 30 community college campuses, has seen a 20% enrollment decline in the last four years with 983 students in fall 2020, down from 1,232 students in the fall of 2016.
Non-credit students are not counted in the tally.
“That’s a precipitous decline,” Drummer said. “There’s a population decline of dramatic proportions not just in New York, it’s all over the country, and we’ve all been feeling the pinch of that. And then the pandemic hit, so that’s the perfect storm, quite honestly.”
The college’s head count decrease equates to about a 25% reduction in the college’s Full-Time Equivalent data, which is based on enrollment and education services and is used to determine state and federal aid.
SUNY needs more, not less, investment to reverse its declining enrollment trend, Malatras said, adding many New Yorkers leave the state to attend college.
“You’ll hear people saying we need more investment — I’m not opposed,” he said. “We’re losing these students, we have an ability to turn that around for enrollment through targeted investment to show return investment.”
Malatras urged legislators to fund the public-education system and increase direct access and support for students, including bolstering online training certificate programs; the SUNY For All campaign that created a SUNY Online Training Center offering 20 free college preparation and certifications in health care, advanced manufacturing and other high-demand industries; a focus on training for green energy jobs; and modernizing online learning by streamlining the state’s program approval process.
“If we have students enrolled, we will thrive,” the chancellor said, “but when students struggle because they can’t perform academically because of economical issues... we’re focusing on those issues where we can show value to our students. I think certain targeting investments are the way we’d like to show you what you’re giving to us is money well spent.”
C-GCC administrators are working to expand the college’s curriculum to add courses, Drummer said, including shortened semesters and ramping up student and parent outreach.
Drummer has written personal letters to parents of area graduating high school seniors and juniors, she said. College administrators are participating in phone chains, or calling students who enrolled for the past, but not the upcoming, semester to maintain enrollment.
About 150 students come to campus for limited in-person instruction this semester out of 1,200 total students. The rest participate in complete remote learning programs due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The message has been learning doesn’t pause,” Drummer said of many students pausing their studies during the pandemic. “You have to keep the momentum going with your education.”