CHEYENNE — In terms of funding, the last decade has been a tough one for Wyoming’s community colleges.
Since the 2011-12 biennium, community colleges have lost $53.8 million in funding when adjusting for inflation, according to a report presented by community college representatives during a meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Education Interim Committee last month.
During the meeting, Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa said community colleges act as an economic engine for the state, developing and training citizens to meet local needs.
“Unfortunately, because of the budget reductions that we have faced over the last several years, we are to the point that we’re struggling to be able to meet these needs in our communities and collectively as a state,” Hicswa said.
Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2021-22 biennium budget proposal includes a nominal increase in funding for the Community College Commission – a jump from about $249.5 million in the last biennium to $260 million. However, that funding boost was largely to account for a proportionate 2% salary increase approved by the Legislature last session, as well as increases in the health insurance plans for community college employees.
Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, said her agency is grateful for what was included in Gordon’s proposal, though she added the commission’s request was based on additions that were required.
“There was not a request for an increase in spending, and there was none given,” Caldwell said in a phone interview with the Tribune Eagle.
Since community college presidents knew it would be tough to gain additional funding through the standard budget, they opted for a different approach. Last month, the seven college presidents wrote a letter to Gordon requesting $30 million in supplementary funding and outlining why the funds were necessary.
“Past legislative actions have reduced budgets to alarmingly low levels,” the letter to Gordon stated. “The colleges urge you to take a stand against this gradual paralysis of our state’s community colleges by making a significant investment of $30 million.”
Gordon was unable to fulfill the request, writing in his letter to the Legislature outlining his budget “our current fiscal situation means the community colleges ... will not receive all of their additional funding requests.”
Though the request was left unfilled, Laramie County Community College President Joe Schaffer said he was pleased with Gordon’s budget proposal.
“In his first budget, to be able to balance fear of constrained resources, as well as continued stability in government operations, I think his budget seems to have struck a nice balance with where we’re at as a state,” Schaffer said.
Echoing comments made at the Joint Education Interim Committee meeting, Schaffer said inflationary pressures, combined with wage growth in surrounding states have made it harder to retain talent, which is partially why the presidents submitted their letter to Gordon.
“Honestly, we didn’t anticipate he would get our requests into his budget,” Schaffer said. “One of the challenges we have is just the mechanics of how the community colleges advance their requests.”
During the Joint Education Interim Committee meeting, legislators discussed the issue of community colleges lacking a “host committee” that fully understands their funding structure and long-term needs.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he thought it would be advantageous to make the Joint Education Committee the host for topics related to community colleges, allowing committee members to understand how those issues interact with K-12 education and the University of Wyoming.
“Honestly, it would make sense for us to do a lot like what we do with K-12 education, where it flows through us,” Rothfuss said. “They bring the budget request to us first, we look at it, and we make a recommendation to (the Joint Appropriations Committee) in support of that budget recommendation.”
Erin Taylor, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees, said the move would make sense, allowing legislators to better understand the needs of community colleges.
“The idea is not necessarily to have just the (Community College Commission) ... but to have the community colleges, and that’s part of the disconnect is the commission had their budget, (while) the colleges have these needs,” Taylor said. “How do we connect those dots?”
The fate of Wyoming’s community colleges will also impact the University of Wyoming, as 75% of UW’s graduating class this spring came from a community college.
In the final year of his administration, former Gov. Matt Mead issued an executive order setting ambitious goals for educational attainment. The order called for 67% of the population to have some kind of postsecondary credential by 2025 and 82% by 2040.
“Lots of states have these goals, but there is economic data that shows that states that have these high attainment goals for higher education have thriving and strong economies,” Taylor said. “So I think that was recognized last year, and now the work is underway to determine how do we implement this plan and what’s needed to do that.”
With 30,000 students currently participating in community college programming, Taylor said now is the time for the state to consider big ideas, like a program similar to the Hathaway Scholarship Program that focuses on educational attainment for adults.
“This is big, Hathaway-size, which means this is like $200 million-plus, to invest in a program that could help folks get the training or retraining that they need to either move up in their job or get a new job,” Taylor said.
Given the state’s looming revenue shortfalls, Taylor acknowledged it’s a big ask, but she said the state should be asking itself whether it’s ready to invest in the future.
“That’s exactly what the Hathaway Scholarship Program was at that time, and I think we’re probably ready to have this conversation,” Taylor said. “Are we ready to make this investment for this other sector of our economy?”