At the beginning of the pandemic three years ago, Bryan Miyagishima and another college librarian drove across the southern Willamette Valley personally delivering laptops to students who were taking classes remotely.
“We did not want them to have to take public transportation and expose themselves to the virus,” said Miyagishima, who has done a lot outside of his duties in his 16 years as a faculty librarian at Linn-Benton Community College.
A lot has changed at community colleges like Linn-Benton since the pandemic began, and in many ways the school has still not fully recovered back to “normal.”
With sustained falling enrollment and soon without pandemic funding from the federal government, colleges are preparing for budget cuts. It’s faculty like Miyagishima who are bearing the brunt.
Miyagishima will lose his job at the end of this school year along with the rest of the full-time faculty librarians at Linn-Benton. The college also plans to eliminate two of its academic programs, among other budget reductions.
Lower enrollment isn’t new, but with the upcoming state budget still up in the air and federal pandemic funding at the end of its road, many colleges are facing a dire financial future. Faculty and students are concerned about the impacts budget cuts could have on the wider community, and college advocates are calling on Oregon to better fund the public institutions that often serve diverse and marginalized populations.
“It’s not a Band-Aid cut, you know? You can’t just slap the Band-Aid on, and then in a couple of years things will get back to normal and things will be as good as new. It’s really more akin to slicing off a hand, as these appendages will never be the same in the future,” Miyagishima said.
Along with cutting all of the full-time library faculty this June, the college plans to eliminate its criminal justice and computer science programs at the end of next school year. LBCC plans to implement a teach-out plan to ensure currently-enrolled students can finish their degrees. In total, 11 full-time faculty positions will be cut — 10 current positions and one vacancy.
The college also eliminated a vacant classified position and two vacant manager positions. LBCC President Lisa Avery said additional reductions to management are forthcoming and will be announced before the summer.
The Albany-based college also plans to redesign its Adult Basic Skills program to operate with a lower budget.
Miyagishima said he’s concerned students won’t get the support and services they need. Students are concerned about that too.
“As students, it’s worrying to see programs cut while enrollment is low and tuition is increasing,” Danae Fouts, LBCC’s student body president said in a statement. “If programs are cut, we could see less enrollment, and if enrollment is flat or goes down, the college is in the same financial crisis that leads them to have to increase tuition and cut more programs and resources. It is definitely not a cycle we want to see where current students end up taking on more burden when there are already so many barriers to attending college.”
LBCC’s Board of Education recently approved a 6% increase in tuition for students, effective this summer.
LBCC’s Avery said that’s an attempt to address an anticipated budget shortfall of $4 million in the next two years. Avery said the proposed cuts total just under $2.5 million — the estimated shortfall for this upcoming school year.
Many of Oregon’s community colleges are struggling to balance their budgets after losing significant student enrollment dating back to 2020 and the start of the pandemic. For many public institutions in the state, enrollment had been slipping far before then too.
According to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, LBCC’s enrollment fell by nearly 30% from 2018 to this past fall.
Community colleges face ‘double whammy’ of declining enrollment, expiration of federal funds
Linn-Benton Community College is not the only college in the state staring down major cuts.
In late January, Chemeketa Community College announced the reduction of 11 full-time faculty, according to the Chemeketa Faculty Association, the faculty’s union.
Union president Steve Wolfe called the layoffs “unreasonable, unnecessary, [and] unjustified” in a report to the board of education last month.
Chemeketa’s executive director of institutional advancement, Marie Hulett, told OPB the college is facing a more than $8 million budget deficit. Hulett said the college has roughly half the number of full-time students now than it did a decade ago.
Over the past few years of the pandemic, the college received some federal funding to help with its budget, but the funds will cease this year, Hulett said.
“Our hope was that enrollment would rebound in earnest, bringing in tuition and fee revenue; and though we are seeing modest enrollment gains, they are not enough to cover the operational costs of the college,” she said.
Blue Mountain Community College was planning to cut 10 full-time faculty positions last year. It ended up cutting five after pushback from its faculty union.
These types of cuts aren’t the only reductions colleges are making, said Oregon Community College Association executive director Morgan Cowling.
“We’re also hearing that colleges are trying to manage within their budgets by holding vacant positions open and incentivizing retirement and making those sorts of adjustments as well,” Cowling told OPB. “So even if they’re not making layoffs, many colleges are managing a reduced revenue level primarily due to enrollment.”
Cowling calls what the colleges are facing “a fiscal cliff.”
“It’s kind of the double whammy of the reduced enrollment and then the federal funds are going away,” she said.
Colleges are also dealing with an unfinished funding picture for the next school year, as state lawmakers have not yet solidified what funding will look like for the next biennium.
The state community college association is advocating this legislative session for $855 million to go to the state’s 17 community colleges for the next biennium, as well as an extra one-time $50 million to help colleges transition away from federal pandemic funding they’ve received over the past few years.
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s recommended budget is well short of that, at about $760 million, though the final amount budgeted to the colleges will be decided by lawmakers later this session.
Linn-Benton Community College student body president Fouts said she hopes adequate state funding comes through to the colleges, and that enrollment bumps back up.
“Even with programs ending, there is so much a community college can offer people in terms of opportunity, growth and support,” Fouts said. “If the college’s financial situation improves, we’d ideally see the programs return someday. My wish is to see the budget conversation center students and how the college moves forward with recruiting, supporting and seeing students succeed through LBCC.”
Students and wider community impacts
Linn-Benton Community College library faculty member Miyagishima said he worries about the impacts the proposed cuts will have — both on the college and on the broader community.
“The reason I sought a job at Linn-Benton Community College is because I live in the community, so as a community member, of course I want to see the college thrive,” he said. “Community colleges hold a place very near and dear in my heart because of who they happen to serve. We serve everybody. We serve the most vulnerable populations.”
Miyagishima said many of the library’s services may stop with no full-time faculty.
Library faculty like Miyagishima are responsible for selecting and purchasing all the library materials, instructing students on how to access scholarly journals and other research, and providing online students with remote access to library resources.
“Our contract language says that these sorts of services cannot be assumed either by management or classified staff, so it’s very possible that these services will have to cease,” he said. “They say that our library will be fully operational, which we know cannot be true. It will be open, but since many of the services were done by the faculty librarians and those services will have to cease, it’s a misnomer to say that it will be fully operational.”
Miyagishima and LBCC’s faculty union, the LBCC Faculty Association, both said they would have liked to see the administration consider other options before deciding on the cuts.
“The faculty contract provides multiple avenues for the administration to make reductions without cutting entire programs and limiting opportunities for students. The Association would have liked to explore these options,” the full-time faculty union’s executive committee said in a statement.
Miyagishima said he thinks the cuts will undoubtedly affect students, not only with a reduction of services but also as a blow to diversity, as the cuts disproportionately affect the already small number of faculty of color at LBCC.
He said out of the 11 faculty positions that will be cut from the school, six are people of color.
According to the faculty union, less than 20% of LBCC faculty are people of color.
“I’m a big believer that representation is important and that students should be able to see themselves in the faculty that work with them and the staff that work with them,” Miyagishima said.
Finishing student feels ‘ladder being pulled up’ behind him
Some students say they were surprised by the proposed cuts, especially as they navigate the stress of final exams and projects before spring break.
Phoenix Angulo’s major is in computer science, one of the programs being cut. He said he’s not too worried about his own studies; he’ll complete his degree this school year, before his program is cut. But he said, the announcement still felt “surreal,” especially as the computer science program was a pathway for many students to Oregon State University — LBCC’s closest public university.
Linn-Benton president Avery said there’s “no question” that cutting the computer science program will impact a lot of students, but she said students will still be able to access many online and remote options to study computer science at other institutions.
“There’s enough crumbling concrete and roof leaks around campus to see the college isn’t flush with cash, but I can’t imagine most students were aware of the multimillion-dollar deficit,” Angulo said. “Cutting computer science seems like an absurd move in this information economy, but I also understand that the kind of hole created by flat enrollment and a collapse in funding isn’t plugged without mangling program offerings and resources.”
Angulo, like many of his peers, is a nontraditional student. He said he dropped out of high school and ended up getting his GED. He spent about six years out of school before enrolling in LBCC. He said he worries that “a gutted library and the inability to do even more major-specific courses” will create challenges for incoming students who also are juggling their lives outside of classes. Or, Angulo said, the lack of services could deter people from coming to LBCC in the first place.
“Maybe it’s a little silly to be sad about something that doesn’t even affect me materially, but it does feel like a ladder is being pulled up right as I finish with it,” he said.
Executive director of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission Ben Cannon said again and again the community colleges have had to be creative with quick changes, like when the economy collapsed in 2008 and the demand for community college surged. This is just another period of change.
“I have been struck by the community colleges’ ability to respond and adapt to their budget realities as well as their community needs, and I think that’s a real strength of community colleges,” Cannon said.
He said although there is no “crystal ball,” enrollments seem to be stabilizing for many of the public colleges and universities in the state.
“The future is not at all hopeless,” Cannon said. “While there have been significant enrollment declines, we see for many particularly career and technical education courses, really high levels of demand from students and from employers who are looking to the community college to produce the well-trained workforce for high demand and often high wage jobs.”