By Dierdree Glassford
Hospitality and Culinary Arts
A week ago Thursday, Jewett Auditorium was buzzing with the chatter of a full audience as a community of dedicated faculty, staff and students, attended a tuition and fee discussion that was facilitated by SMCC President Ronald Cantor and lead by Maine Community College System interim President Derek Langhauser. The talk was billed as an informative talk and discussion concerning the economic state of SMCC, and the MCCS, and how the impending budget deficit could affect SMCC and the community college system.
After a moment of levity – as pizza was served the decision of where to serve it seemed to throw the administration a curveball – President Cantor started off the meeting with a strong introduction, with words on how enrollment trends and other demographics have affected SMCC budget. A major concern for enrollment is that the number of graduating seniors from high schools is in decline in the state of Maine. Derek Langhauser pointed out that there are 9 high schools in Washington County and only 600 graduating seniors last year.
Coupled with the decreasing numbers of graduating seniors is the unemployment trend and how it affects enrollment. In 2010 through 2012 the national unemployment rate fluctuated between 9.6 (2010) and 8.1 (2012). Simultaneously, SMCC’s full-time enrollment peaked at approximately 7,500 students in 2011.
After President Cantor’s opening remarks, President Langhauser spoke for close to 45 minutes outlining how the MCCS’s budget has arrived to where it is now. Holding the room’s attention, Langhauser, who was asked by the Board of Trustees to be interim president for MCCS in January 23rd 2015, started off by speaking about how he was focused on stabilizing the systems and operational costs. As SMCC is the largest school of the 7 community colleges it has the largest enrollment and the largest operating expenses.
The topic of retention surfaced as one of the largest issues that SMCC has as far its affect on the SMCC budget. While there are many ways to look at the decrease in SMCC’s retention numbers; from students being hired out of degree programs before they earn a degree, to not being able to balance the school/work dynamic, and/or not being prepared for the demands of higher education, it remains a variable that eludes being fixed.
One of the President Langhauser’s biggest concerns is to find a way to keep students enrolled until they graduate. While not going into detail, Langhauser did reference how the delivery of classes could be improved upon and expanded. Rachel Guthrie, Co-Chair of the Communications New Media Studies Department asked if the range and availability of online courses would be expanded, President Langhauser responded by saying that was one of the options they were considering. He also referenced partnering with businesses to enhance how classes were developed and delivered.
Langhauser went on to explain how the costs of the system are allocated, which includes professor’s salary, retirement and health insurance expenditures, which are paid for by tuition and funding from the state.
Shane Long, Director of Resident Life and Student Involvement, raised a concern about how SMCC will retain students if we do not have the staff and the resources that students need in order to succeed. “At some point it is difficult to retain students without the staff available… we need quality education, not just accessible education.” It raises the question of what will be sacrificed as an outcome of the budget deficit. Many faculty, staff, and students are questioning what the consequences will be if we are not able to bounce back from a projected 1.25 million dollars budget shortfall.
As the talk was labeled, a discussion concerning tuition and fees, the conversation turned to tuition and was touched upon not only by Derek Langhauser but also by, Erik Squire Student Senate President and the Culinary Arts Department.
One show of a positive vote for a raise in tuition came in the form of a petition from the Culinary Arts students to the Trustees of the Maine Community College System. Arriving in uniform at the start of the meeting, 5 representatives of the Culinary Arts program presented Langhauser with a petition stating, “Dear Trustees of the Maine community College System, We the undersigned culinary students feel it is necessary for us to continue getting the quality culinary experience we have been exposed to at SMCC in order to compete with workers in the field. We undersigned students therefore feel a raise in the tuition and or experiencing a Lab fee increase is acceptable. We would prefer it to lessening the quality of the program.”
Erik Squire raised the question of if SMCC alone could increase the cost of tuition and the rest of the MCCS could stay at the same rate, with the students here at SMCC being more able to handle the price increase than the students from the other counties in Maine.
Langhauser replied while there was no law or rule against MCCS allowing different tuition prices across the college system, it has never been done and there are reservations with implementing such a policy. He also went on to state that if someone from Washington County Community College were to transfer to SMCC they might be upset about the price difference.
Squire then followed up asking if the student senate were to put out a petition and conduct a referendum favoring a small tuition increase would the board of trustees consider the proposal.
Langhauser replied, if the referendum where created that the board of trustees would consider it but would rather have a professional survey conducted to assess the impact and favorability of a tuition price increase.
Langhauser has gone on record stating that he takes full responsibility for his recommendation to not raise the tuition, and to wait until July of the next fiscal year in order to make a new assessment. Langhauser was very open in describing the negotiation process with the state legislature. As the MCCS has been flat funded for a few years no increases have been made to the system or SMCC budgets.
Langhauser was able to achieve a 5.5% increase, which will bring in $121 million for the system, however he made a point that it would barely cover the debt that the system already obtained.
Raising tuition by $3 dollars a credit hour, currently in-state tuition rates are $90 a credit hour, would raise the income of money from enrollment to a total of $1 million dollars for the MCCS system, and $400,000 for SMCC alone.
The question is, will the reaction of the students be hesitant as Langhauser suspects? Or will the students agree with the raise in tuition in order to secure the quality of their education and the support that is offered through the school in order to succeed academically?
One student hoped that there would be talks of a contingency plan, but all in all they were impressed with the 5.5% budget increase that Langhauser was able to achieve with the appropriations committee, and appreciated the informative “lecture” as they described it, feeling as though the talk was very clear in breaking down the situation that the school is currently in, financially speaking.
A huge question to be asked is what will happen to our programs, the community, and the resources SMCC is currently able to provide for its students in the wake of this budget deficiency, and where do we go from here? As Langhauser said, “the larger colleges like University of Maine-Orono can handle a budget deficiency, but SMCC cannot.”