Michael McDonough, president of Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, has been posting almost-daily COVID-19 updates on the school website for the past several weeks. In time, they could be a historian’s treasure — a detailed account of how one community college navigated through the pandemic’s uncharted waters. For now, his messages are a mix of practical information for the community; accolades to problem-solving staff members and RVCC Heroes on the front line; and personal perspectives often peppered with pop culture references.
One topic overshadows all of these: money — or the lack of it. As with their four-year public college counterparts, New Jersey’s 18 community colleges are facing unprecedented financial challenges, largely because of coronavirus-related reductions in state aid. The Murphy administration’s proposal to extend fiscal year 2020 to the end of September sustains state student aid through programs such as Tuition Aid Grants and Community College Opportunity Grants at current levels, but the schools will receive no additional operating aid for those months.
“I understand the bigger picture and that the state all of a sudden has this dramatic drop in revenue,” said McDonough, noting that RVCC receives about $6.1 million a year in operating aid from the state. “The domino effect on this institution is almost $2.5 million in lost state aid.”
That’s just one revenue source that has dried up. The state’s funding for capital improvements is on hold, putting an end to new building projects and renovations on the campus. And the income generated from RVCC’s theatrical performances and facility rentals for conferences and summer camps, as well as reduced summer enrollment, have taken a toll of about $4 million.
Millions in aid lost, just like that
Chris Reber, president of Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, says the college is facing many of the same challenges — and unique ones, as well. A freeze on state operating aid for fiscal year 2020’s fourth quarter resulted in more than a $1 million drop in funding, and he anticipates losing 25% or more of state aid for FY2021, about $2 million.
Among Hudson’s unique situations: Enrollment hit a lull this spring because social-distancing restrictions limited how the school could test and place incoming first-year students. More than 90% of HCCC’s new students enroll in one or more English as a Second Language or developmental education courses, but before they can enroll in a class, they need to be tested.
“Testing is typically a labor-intensive, very personal process that’s normally done on the ground,” said Reber. When in-person evaluations transitioned to remote testing, the college hit another bump: The online evaluation tool they used crashed and was down for several weeks.
“We had to immediately find new ways of appropriately testing our students, and it really took a village. All of this does,” said Reber. “Our whole college community came together to develop a new, self-directed placement process.” Even with testing ramped up again and a robust return of current students, he said he anticipates a 20% decline in enrollment for fall which translates to a loss of about $7.5 million in tuition revenue.
Historically, when a weak economy results in high unemployment, community college enrollment increases. People return to finish their degree, gain additional credentials or retrain in another field. If four-year colleges offer only remote instruction this fall, fulfilling general education requirements at a community college is an option for cost-conscious students and their families. Still, fall enrollment at community colleges remains one of many uncertainties brought on by the pandemic.
Eventual increase in enrollment?
“We expect an eventual enrollment increase unless this is different than any other cycle … and community colleges will be an engine for economic recovery,” said Reber.
Until then, the state’s community colleges are looking for ways to make up for lost revenues and unanticipated expenditures, such as for deep cleaning of campuses and additional technology investments. HCCC purchased $200,000 worth of laptops this spring to be used as loaners to students who did not have their own.
Emergency money has come from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In its initial funding this April, community colleges shared in the $289 million distributed to New Jersey public higher education institutions: HCCC received $8.4 million, the largest share among the state’s community colleges because of its high percentage of Pell grant recipients, and RVCC was given $3.8 million, half of which is being distributed to students. Even still, McDonough said he believes the formula used to calculate aid was inequitable.
“The funds were allocated based on how many full-time students you have. Well, community colleges historically have many more part-time students enrolled,” he said, noting that about 65% of RVCC students are part-time. “Students at all community colleges, not just RVCC, deserve as much support as students anywhere. It’s not a question that I want to take money away from other institutions, but I think we need to recognize what’s going on and how it really hurts community colleges and their students.”
There are other CARES Act sources of higher education funding, including $11.9 million for qualifying minority-serving institutions, a $69 million Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) block grant and another $300 million that’s restricted to pandemic-related expenses. While these are large sums of money for which college administrators said they are grateful, once distributed among all the state’s public colleges, the individual totals still won’t make up for the revenue losses. For example, based on previous distributions of state aid, McDonough anticipates RVCC will receive between $400,000 and $500,000 of the $69 million in GEER funds.
Unlike four-year schools, most community colleges don’t have large endowments or reserves to tap, but similarly have turned to hiring freezes and spending reductions. Some have laid off staff, including at RCCC, which after the spring semester ended, reduced its part-time, nonteaching staff by 97, nearly half of its pre-pandemic roster.
Waivers bring some students back to the classroom
Like the four-year colleges, community colleges transitioned to online instruction midway through the spring semester. Even the best online instruction can’t replicate what some students need to learn to complete their degree or certificate: hands-on proficiency in labs or studios. That’s why the state Department of Higher Education developed a limited-exception waiver process by which colleges can apply to allow students to return to campus during shutdown and complete certain coursework.
As of June 3, according to a department spokeswoman, 27 waiver requests have been received from two- and four-year colleges; 14 have been approved, and about a dozen are under review.
“It’s a formal process through which we submitted fairly detailed documentation,” said McDonough. “The students we’re bringing back were enrolled in spring classes and can now complete them. I’m grateful to the secretary of higher education for allowing us to do this. Many of these programs are directly linked into students getting jobs and re-entering the economy.” The college plans to apply for additional waivers in areas such as nursing, art, lab science and workforce training.
The waiver, McDonough added, gives RVCC the ability to pilot its new social-distancing classroom protocols. “We’ll do everything we can to keep students and faculty safe, and make any adjustments we need to make. It’s a first step to what we hope will be bringing more students back in the fall,” he said.
One student makes the case for community college
Koral Booth’s story is one community colleges want to tell, especially as the coronavirus’s economic toll has many New Jerseyans, from recent high school graduates to suddenly jobless adults, wondering about their future.
It’s students such as Booth, who have not taken a linear educational path and/or are the first in their families to attend college, that community colleges have expertise in assisting. At HCCC, one-third of students were born outside the U.S., 87% are nonwhite and 56% are Latino, and many come from homes with very modest financial means.
Booth attended a four-year college right after high school, but “I just wasn’t ready,” she said, turning to a variety of jobs, including medical billing and massage therapy. “They were okay, but I wasn’t being fulfilled. I talked about going back to college for a long time, and when I spoke with my parents, they both said, ‘I think you should do it.” In her thirties and the mother of four sons ages 6 to 18, the Jersey City resident enrolled in Hudson County Community College as an English major.
Her goal was to go to class, get good grades and return to her family — nothing more.
“It was a difficult adjustment at first, feeling out of place being the oldest person in the classroom,” she said. “It took me a full semester to get into the swing of things.”
Once that happened, there’s been no looking back for Booth, a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success honor society, campus peer leader, creative writer and poet, and now, at 41, ready to tackle a dual-enrollment program at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City on a full scholarship. She expects to complete her bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in urban studies, as well as a master’s degree in higher education, at 45, with the possibility of pursuing her doctorate.
The next phase of her education, while eagerly anticipated, is also bittersweet for Booth.
“I was really nervous about graduating from Hudson because it’s like leaving my family. But they said, ‘You’ve done everything you need to do here. It’s time for you to go,’” she said. “People think a community college is a place to go because you can’t afford a four-year school or that it’s not as good as a four-year. I’ve had better experiences at Hudson than I had when I was 17. I’d say to those thinking about community college to go, do what you love and take that chance.”