Tinkering with how to calculate state money North Carolina's community colleges receive has left many campuses this fall with fewer instructors, larger classes and reduced services for students seeking skills to build careers.
Gov. Pat McCrory signed the state budget bill that contained a provision changing the base funding formula for the 58 colleges have used since 1999. McCrory recommended such a change in his own budget proposal, and legislative leaders essentially went along with it.
Legislators and the governor say the adjustment more accurately reflects true enrollment figures of schools as statewide community college enrollment ramps down from the height of the Great Recession, when the unemployed flooded classrooms. McCrory ultimately wants to determine community college funding more on the programs each campus has that create good-paying jobs and less on student numbers. Those efforts already have started.
"We need to tie more funding to the outcomes of especially placing people in jobs and what the job market needs," McCrory said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. The traditional formula, he added, "was basically made based upon how many people you have in the seats."
The change cumulatively means about $20 million less for all the campuses out of the $1.1 billion they'll receive from the state this year under the formula. But some campuses are have had to make larger cuts to courses and staffing levels for their share.
"They are most certainly feeling the pain of this change," said Jennifer Haygood, executive vice president and chief financial officer of the state community college system. She said the system office didn't request the formula adjustment.
Previously, schools received state allotments based on enrollment counted as the higher of enrollment for the previous year or the average of the prior three years. Now it's the higher of the previous year or the average of the two prior years. The enrollment number is based on an artificial figure — a "full-time equivalent" student, or 16 credit hours taken in a semester.
Legislators said the change is about using funds more efficiently for a system with more than 800,000 students enrolled annually for at least one class.
"The three-year average made the formula quite inaccurate. Where a two-year average was still going to be higher ... it was going to be more realistic to what was going to be predicted in community colleges," said Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga and co-chairman of the Senate's education budget subcommittee.
Community college officials said they want to receive appropriate funding levels for the students they have, but the change was abrupt. The adjustment removed from the calculations the 2010-11 fiscal year, which saw the peak in annual community college enrollment of more than 253,000 full-time equivalent students. It meant most campuses are receiving less than they would have under the three-year average.
Legislators set aside another $4 million that got distributed this year to 31 colleges most affected by the formula change.
Walter Bartlett, president of Piedmont Community College, with about 1,750 students covering Person and Caswell counties, said he's "proud to say a student coming on campus isn't going to see" much difference, but the roughly 10 percent reduction his school took has "hit us pretty hard." The school eliminated three programs of study, reduced literature classes offered and decreased part-time instructor positions in a division by 25.
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, which saw a student enrollment increase this fall, is closing the library earlier on weeknights and all day Friday to help trim a $1.5 million decline in state funds overall. Leslie Brown, a 44-year-old Rowan-Cabarrus student from Granite Quarry, said her pre-calculus class has 30 students instead of 20, and on-campus tutoring is tougher to get because of a similar reduction in hours.
"It's been really hard for me to find the time I need to be successful in the class," said Brown, who wants to complete an associate degree in science next year on the path to four-year college. Brown, the school's student government president, is worried academic reductions will make it harder for classmates to complete degrees on time.
"It's going to cause people to give up," she said.
Campus revenues are complicated — there are three tiers of per-student funding, one of which receives a 15 percent premium for high-cost programs such as nursing. Soucek said the look-back funding method is difficult to administer and legislators want to improve it.
This fiscal year is the first to implement a system in which campuses that succeed on performance standards — such as graduation rates and the number of students earning occupational licenses or GEDs— could get more state funds. The legislature also wants to put in place a fourth tier of funding for more high-tech programs.
Rates for in-state tuition, which provide about one-quarter of the system budget, have risen 70 percent since 2009.
Carol Spalding, president of Rowan-Cabarrus, said this year's formula change caused her school to delay for a year development of programs for students to become occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants. She's worried whether performance-based funding will in the long term make up for cuts.
Spalding said the future of community college effectiveness is ultimately linked to whether campuses receive more funds, coming from private sources or the state: "We need net new dollars."