With falling enrollments and diminishing support from the state, Northwest College is facing a crunch as it plans its fiscal year 2020 budget. As a result of the shortfall, layoffs are likely.
Stefani Hicswa, NWC president, said the college wouldn’t have any specifics on the reductions in force — such as how many positions and which departments would be impacted — until the NWC Board of Trustees meets in June to review a balanced budget.
It’s not entirely certain the layoffs will occur, but the discussion at Monday’s board meeting suggested they’re highly probable.
“It really stinks, but it’s work we have to do,” Hicswa told the board. “We don’t have a choice.”
NWC is projecting a $1.6 million cut to its operating budget for fiscal year 2020, which is an 8 percent drop from last year’s budget.
In fiscal year 2017, the college was hit with an 11.5 percent budget reduction, which led to some reductions in personnel. A total of 19 positions were eliminated, all but four of which were cut through early retirements or leaving open positions unfilled. The bulk of the budget cuts in that year were non-personnel.
Since NWC cut so much from its operating budget in fiscal year 2017, Hicswa said there aren’t as many non-personnel cuts to be made this time around.
In this fiscal year, which ends in October, the college has a projected 10 percent drop in enrollment. That amounts to a $600,000 drop in revenue. Additionally, between reductions to health insurance reimbursements and cuts made by the Wyoming Legislature, NWC expects its support from the state to sink by about $121,000.
Speaking after the board meeting, Hicswa said there is an “off chance” that early retirements or attrition would render layoffs unnecessary, but that scenario is unlikely.
In preparation for the likely need to cut personnel, the college updated its reduction in force policies.
College employees who are laid off will receive 30 days’ notice, according to the college’s policies. The employees will receive one month’s salary in severance pay, and the college will continue to contribute premiums for health and dental coverage for six months or until the employee finds another job. Leave of absences in lieu of layoffs are not permitted.
The employees who are laid off will also be given first consideration for rehire into the position for which they are terminated.
While the school’s policy has an appeal process for any laid off employee who believes the reduction in force policies were not followed properly, there is no appeal process if the employee believes the job should be maintained in the budget.
The college is making other cuts where possible. For example, it will only open Colter Hall if the other residency halls are filled.
“If we don’t fill up, we can save money that way,” Hicswa said.
The Northwest College Foundation has also been providing more scholarship support, which has lessened the need for tuition waivers.
Community college enrollment tends to follow unemployment rates; for example, when people are unemployed, they often pursue education while looking for work.
The board discussed the rising amount of competition that community colleges are facing from online educations, and the school will be looking into expanding its online offerings.
“It’s something we haven’t really had to deal with that,” said NWC Trustee John Housel.
In addition, Northwest College is pursuing an aggressive strategy to address falling enrollment. If successful, it will take time to bear fruit, so it won’t prevent any layoffs in the near term.
Hicswa said the strategy is a lot more holistic in its approach and goes well past just recruitment. The plan takes a three-prong approach, with recruitment, retention and student success.
“The old mission focused on just getting students in the door,” Hicswa said.
The plan includes a number of tactics, such as greatly enhancing communications with existing and prospective students.
Software will provide quick responses to student inquiries, even outside of business hours.
“Students have expectations of people getting back to them when they make an inquiry. ... Students are researching colleges at 2 in the morning,” Hicswa said.
If a student is showing diminishing grades, the software will alert a school employee, who can then follow-up with the student to see if there are ways to help them succeed.
The strategy also targets parents, who are involved in students’ lives well beyond high school more often than they once were. Hicswa discussed “helicopter parents,” who hover protectively over their kids, and “lawnmower parents,” who tend to mow down barriers to drive their kids’ success. Those types of parents, and others, want to be involved in choosing their kids’ higher educations — and by including them in the recruitment strategy, NWC hopes to draw in and keep more students.
Board President Dustin Spomer suggested the strategy could be improved with some metrics to set goals and measure outcomes.
“What does success look like?” he asked.
The strategy will be updated based on the board’s input and performance over time as it’s implemented, Hicswa said. While setting objectives would be valuable, there never will be a point when they can cease the effort.
“We’re never done,” she said.
And whatever success the strategy produces, it will not prevent the college from having to make some hard decisions about budget cuts.
“Unfortunately, we can’t wait for the fruits of all this strategic planning,” Hicswa said. “We have to present a balanced budget to the board in June.”