October 5, 2019 10:03:00 PM
If all 15 community colleges in Mississippi were offered as a public company on the open stock market, no one would want to invest.
East Mississippi Community College President Scott Alsobrooks, citing a private firm's recent economic study that looked at audits for 13 of the 15 colleges, shared that finding Friday with media members gathered at Lion Hills Center. His frankness seemed to betray the goal of buoying up the community college outlook during his State of EMCC presentation, but looking at the numbers in the handouts he provided, it's hard to argue his point.
Enrollment is declining, meaning less tuition revenue. State funding is consistently dropping, making the task of balancing the bottom line without cutting services more difficult.
"Many (community) colleges in the United States are experiencing a similar dilemma as us," Alsobrooks said. "We're having to adjust and make some changes."
At EMCC, enrollment and funding are becoming particularly alarming.
The college's operating fund balance has dropped by $10 million over the past decade, with the approved 2019-20 budget projecting nearly $1.9 million more in deficit spending. EMCC is relying on its more than $12 million in reserve funds to shoulder the deficit.
This year's deficit was based on an enrollment dip of 3 to 4 percent, Alsobrooks said. But for the fall semester, actual enrollment was down 5 percent -- from 4,086 in fall 2018 to 3,882 this August. That's EMCC's lowest enrollment in more than 10 years and 27 percent down from its all-time high of 5,308 students in 2010.
"We made several cuts this past year, and if enrollment keeps declining, we'll have to cut operational costs again," said Alsobrooks, who took on the EMCC presidency in January. "Seventy-five percent of our operating cost is people. So when you talk about balancing the budget, there are certain things you can't cut. ... The people are where the money's at."
Plans to grow
To reverse the enrollment trend, Alsobrooks suggests targeting growth in areas of identified need.
Specifically, the college is looking to bolster opportunities for students seeking career pathways into nursing and allied health, as well as expand career-technical offerings at the college's main campus at Scooba.
Alsobrooks said EMCC will listen to business leaders requesting certain skills or programs, then pursue grants and other funding avenues to get the programs off the ground.
"After about three years from when a program starts, we expect -- if we have enough people in the seats -- for it to stand up on tuition and (state) funding," Alsobrooks said.
EMCC is also looking for ways to partner with Mississippi State University to capture more enrollment from freshmen who want to leave the four-year setting after a semester or year.
"All colleges have a natural drop-off rate (because) your fall enrollment is always higher than your spring enrollment. Mississippi State has the largest incoming freshman enrollment in the history of the university (this year). A lot of those students aren't coming back ... in the spring," Alsobrooks said. "We're going to work with Mississippi State aggressively to capture some of those students who may not want to stay there for whatever reason or may be having trouble. We want them at (EMCC).
"We're working creatively to find ways where maybe they can even live in a dorm on the Starkville campus and go to school with us," he added, referencing a similar arrangement he had learned about between the University of Kentucky and a nearby community college. "It's not unprecedented to have an agreement like that."
The college also is working with the Legislature to allow EMCC to offer out-of-state tuition waivers, something that is prohibited now, Alsobrooks said.
Most of the budgeted deficit this year consists of start-up costs for operating the Communiversity advanced manufacturing training center on Highway 82 in Lowndes County.
The $42-million facility -- built primarily through funding from Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, state appropriations and an Appalachian Regional Commission grant -- opened in August with 197 students. The facility needs to reach enrollment of 400 each year to keep pace with area industry needs, Alsobrooks said.
The college also is partnering with as many as 30 area businesses on various facets of the Communiversity -- whether equipment, training or other programs -- and it is actively building a foundation of private funds that will help sustain the facility.
"If you look at an operation like the Communiversity, it's going to take industry involvement to sustain it," he said. "But that's the typical model across the country, is to ask corporations to help. So our goal is to ask them to help."
EMCC is still seeking a permanent director for the Communiversity. Three candidates are scheduled to interview on Oct. 15, he said -- one each from Alabama, Texas and Mississippi.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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