Our community colleges can’t be an afterthought

Posted 7/14/20

As Wyoming finds itself hit with both an economy-disrupting pandemic and a plummeting market for minerals, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re all in for a rough ride.

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Our community colleges can’t be an afterthought


As Wyoming finds itself hit with both an economy-disrupting pandemic and a plummeting market for minerals, there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re all in for a rough ride.

The potentially devastating impacts of this budget crunch were driven home late last month. That’s when the Northern Wyoming Community College District — which operates both Sheridan and Gillette colleges — abruptly announced it was axing the colleges’ athletic programs, save rodeo. Multiple academic programs were also scrapped as well, among other changes that are expected to save nearly $4 million.

Members of the Gillette community quickly rallied to draft a plan that would have kept the Pronghorns’ athletics programs going with private dollars, but the district’s Sheridan-based board rejected it out of hand, saying that wouldn’t be fair to Sheridan.

The sudden turn of events turned plenty of heads around the state — and made us thankful to have more level-headed leaders at Northwest College.

Just like Sheridan and Gillette, NWC faces some unenviable, tough choices ahead. But rather than cancel programs at the last minute and effectively cut the public out of the process, NWC President Stefani Hicswa announced that the college planned to use money left over from last year’s budget to maintain all of the existing programs for another year.

“This will give us the time we need to be thoughtful and strategic in our budget cuts next year,” Hicswa said, adding that the college “will be communicating those decisions as transparently as possible.”

Of course, just because there’s a commitment from local leaders to keep the process open doesn’t mean it will be easy. Hicswa warned the community “that without new revenue streams, NWC will simply not continue to be funded at the same level as in the past.”

We hope our state leaders and lawmakers are paying attention to the plight of our community colleges, including NWC, and are preparing to support the institutions as best they can.

The colleges were hit particularly hard by the last round of state cuts several years ago, and yet they sometimes seem to be overshadowed by entities like the University of Wyoming. (That’s despite the fact that roughly 29,500 students attended Wyoming’s eight community colleges in 2018-19 — more than double UW’s official fall 2018 headcount of 12,450 students.)

For example, it was bitterly disappointing to see $162 million worth of important construction projects nixed during last winter’s legislative session because of a fight over a few projects at UW.

Postponing the work would have made some sense if lawmakers had decided that this just wasn’t the year for construction. But the Legislature broadly agreed on funding nearly all of the projects — including money to cover half the cost of a new student center at Northwest College. The problem was that state senators and representatives couldn’t agree on a few UW projects: a new swimming pool, upgrades to the football stadium and an addition to the College of Law. NWC’s student center “just got sucked up in that quagmire of the university project funding,” Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, explained after the session.

The Legislature wound up killing off all the projects because lawmakers — both UW project boosters and critics — got singularly focused on the state’s sole university and failed to act.

That can’t happen in this fiscal crisis.

As the state faces a particularly nasty budget crunch, there are few, if any, areas of state spending that shouldn’t be subject to cuts. But we hope our state leaders remember the importance of our community colleges.

For many careers, obtaining a college degree is critical and, for many young adults, college plays a central role in preparing them for the professional world while offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And, for numerous students, community colleges offer advantages over universities — including the opportunity to stay closer to home and save money, all while receiving high quality instruction.

The last round of funding cuts at Northwest College set the institution back and, we strongly suspect, played at least some role in flagging enrollment over the last few years. NWC leaders have been working diligently to reverse that trend and — especially as COVID-19 continues to disrupt colleges and everything else — we would certainly hate to see a repeat.