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Enrollment decrease leads to higher tuition

Students study hard for finals in Building 2. Photo by Jenaro Ramirez.

After five consecutive years of decline, Chemeketa’s enrollment is down 28% compared to its peak numbers in 2010-2011. To combat the resulting loss in revenue, the Chemeketa Board of Education has decided to raise both tuition and fees by $3 per credit starting next year, for a combined $6 increase.

“Our intent for the last multiple years was to not put that on the shoulders of the students,” said Jim Eustrom, Vice President of Instruction and Student Services. But the situation demanded action, and a proposal was made and presented to the Board.

While the increase may sound inconsequential at face value, it reflects a budget situation that is becoming increasingly dire as time goes on, and has no clear end in sight.

“We’re receiving $1 million less for this year and next year than we had in in years past because our enrollment decline has impacted what the state allocates us,” Eustrom said. “We’re at a place where our budget doesn’t meet the revenue coming in, our expenditures. We looked at that very carefully.”

Each biennium, the state of Oregon divides funding between its 17 community colleges, with each school’s portion being based on their current enrollment. Colleges experiencing higher enrollment also receive higher funding.

This is the situation Chemeketa found itself in in the 2010-11 academic year, when enrollment was at its highest. With both a wealth of students, and the increased funding to support them, Chemeketa invested in new facilities and programs. Unfortunately, an extended period of decline began directly after. The result: an over-extended budget, a campus with too many classes, and not enough students to fill them.

“[Enrollment decline] tends to happen on a wave,” Eustrom said. “You have to gear up for the numbers that you have. And then if the numbers decline, it’s harder to gear down because you’ve developed other programs or services and staffing.”

In an unfortunate turn of events, some of the programs born from that period to save students money have even come back to hurt the college financially.

For example, Chemeketa Press’ recently printed Art for Everyone, one of a number of textbooks printed in house to save students money, has been a great success. It can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook. But saved money for students means lost revenue for the college.

“A significant percentage of students had gone through a course without ever buying a textbook because they couldn’t afford it…We’re trying to reduce that… But it does not bode well for the Bookstore.”

Many similar factors contribute to the overall deficit, but Chemeketa’s dedication to placing the student first has led to both the continuity of programs like Chemeketa Press and the four years before 2016 that saw no tuition increase.

However, that does not fix the issue, and with less funding from the state, the situation’s severity has begun to compound.

“I think even if we try to pare down the budget as much as possible,” President Julie Huckestein said, speaking about the potential long term effects of the enrollment problem. “We would have to have large increases in tuition and fees in order for us to sustain the programs and the services that we have. It’s a reality.”

The problem is not specific to Chemeketa, but is a widespread trend as a result of the recently improved economy.

“There are 17 community colleges, and at least 14 are raising their tuition,” Eustrom said. But more recent numbers show that 16 of the 17 Oregon institutions decided on similar tuition increases, because they are experiencing similar problems. Only Klamath Community College voted not to increase their price.

“If you look at where we were with the economic situation in the world [in 2010-11], with the recession, a lot of people come back to school,” Eustrom said.

Despite the increase, Chemeketa remains the cheapest community college in the state of Oregon. According to a January proposal drafted by Eustrom, Huckestein and Associate Vice President Miriam Scharer, “Maintaining tuition at the lowest rate possible is advantageous to students but entails some risk in our long term financial planning… Future tuition increases may be a necessary component of the college’s financial planning strategy.”

That same proposal notes that the college expects further expenditures in the form of rising employee costs.

“It doesn’t mean that the legislature doesn’t care about community college,” Huckestein said, “or about education, but remember they only have so much money to, and it has to go to many many places.”

Oregon’s system prioritizes the education of elementary, middle and high-school children before higher education, and as a result generally does not increase funding for colleges like Chemeketa without a reason deemed necessary.

With all these factors in play, the future of Chemeketa is uncertain. But time will tell.

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