Cuesta College looks to attract students by building for the future

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMarch 29, 2014 

Enrollment has plunged at Cuesta College, dropping 30 percent in the last four years largely due to state budget cuts and its struggle with accreditation, but the school is working to add students, bolster programs and restore its health.

The challenges administrators face are not simple or small. In many ways, they are straddling a moment in time, working to recover from five years of contraction and turmoil while simultaneously looking ahead to build the college of the future.

Most immediately, unless Cuesta can increase enrollment by summer’s end, it won’t get an additional $3.3 million in state funds this fiscal year — money that would eliminate an estimated $607,012 budget shortfall and help the community college sustain its economic health long-term.

Officials think they’re falling just short of their target. Cuesta leaders are taking several steps to boost enrollment, including hiring additional faculty, adding more online classes, expanding summer school and paying the first semester’s tuition for all incoming county freshmen.

“We have all these ideas of how to get back to where we need to be, but the problem is we need two years to get it all in place and that causes a two-year deficit,” said Toni Sommer, vice president of administrative services at Cuesta College. “We are grappling with that right now.”

The college is confronting this challenge after winning a protracted battle in early February to regain its status with the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

In the last couple of years that meant fixing insufficiencies in three areas: planning and assessment, technology resources, and financial planning and stability. Although the process was difficult, college officials believe they emerged much healthier and stronger — and a visiting team that conducted the last evaluation concurred.

In a report, it wrote: “If Cuesta College maintains its current course, there is every reason to believe that this college will sustain these changes and improvements and achieve the level of excellence it seeks.”

Why Cuesta cut back

Sweeping cuts in state funding, increased payments on outstanding debt for completed building projects and built-in salary increases, along with other inflationary expenses, led to a $3 million shortfall at Cuesta in 2012.

The Cuesta College Board of Trustees responded that April by cutting $3 million to balance the college’s 2012-13 budget — eliminating 26 positions and laying off 16 people. Later that year, in December 2012, the board made more cuts by eliminating 10 programs and reducing a dozen others in order to save the college $764,275 annually. Those programs are not being restored.

“At the same time we were reducing the number of class offerings due to the budget reductions, the uncertainty that accompanied the news of our accreditation sanction created fear among current and future students,” said Cuesta Superintendent Gil Stork.

“Many current students — regardless of how clearly we stated what sanction means and emphasized that units and degrees were not affected — still decided to go elsewhere.”

Moreover, while Cuesta was on accreditation sanction, it was prohibited from adding any new programs, Sommer said. The college’s enrollment suffered as a result.

The number of students enrolled fell from 13,443 students at the college’s peak in 2009 to 9,448 in 2013 — a drop of 30 percent. At the same time, the number of full-time-equivalent students, those taking a course load of 15 units or more for two semesters, declined 16 percent — from 10,017 in 2009 to 8,400 in 2013.

Current total enrollment for full-time-equivalent students for this fiscal year’s fall and spring semesters is projected to be 7,500 students. Enrollment from the 2013 and 2014 summer sessions is expected to add another 1,000 students. That means the college will fall 133 students short of its targeted full-time-equivalent enrollment this year of 8,633.

Unless it can bridge that gap quickly, Cuesta won’t fill enough seats to take advantage of the state’s decision to give the college an additional $3.3 million for meeting its targeted enrollment. The state pays about $4,500 per student.

“We have found that you can reduce the schedule rather quickly, but the challenge is to increase the schedule to bring those students back,” said Bret Clark, dean of academic affairs.

The college will miss its target by an even larger number next year because it will not be able to use the summer enrollment to meet the goal.

Future plans

The college is trying to boost enrollment several ways. It’s working to expand online education classes, planning additional courses in computer science, early childhood education, emergency medical services, philosophy and sociology.

The college is partnering with local school districts to offer career-planning classes for high school freshman.

The Cuesta College Promise, which was made possible by an $8.5 million endowment, will pay the first semester costs, about $626, of all incoming county freshmen starting this fall.

Student Charles Scovell, president of the Associated Students of Cuesta College, said that many students had to work full time instead of attending school because of the economic downturn. He believes that Cuesta Promise will improve enrollment — allowing more students to get started taking classes.

“The decline in enrollment was the result of the perfect storm,” Scovell said. “It is going to improve with the reaffirmation of accreditation and the Cuesta Promise, which is a phenomenal opportunity.”

Scovell, 35, has attended Cuesta full-time for three semesters. Studying political science and English, he plans to pursue politics. For now, he continues to run a full-time tree-trimming business called Charlie Scovell Tree — a trade he learned from his dad.

The college has also slowly started to increase the number of courses offered at its San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles campuses and plans to hire 14 additional faculty members for the fall semester to increase enrollment.

The faculty is being hired in a range of areas including art, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, Spanish, biology, counseling and nursing. The new faculty will cost the college about $650,000 annually.

“Part of our enrollment problem is that where there is demand, we cannot add additional sections of classes due to the lack of available adjunct faculty in the area,” Stork said. “Disciplines of high demand such as biology, mathematics, Spanish and psychology will be able to better meet the student demand and consequently help increase our enrollment.”

Stork said that over the past four years, 30 full-time faculty retired or resigned, so the college now needs to rebuild departments such as fine arts, social sciences and math. Such a financial commitment is necessary for the college’s long-term financial stability, he said.

“The goal is to rebuild our faculty strategically. That will help rebuild our enrollment which, in turn, will allow us to move closer to our funded enrollment cap,” said Stork. “So, spending money for additional faculty is an investment in our financial health as well as our students’ ability to achieve their educational goal.”

The college is also adding additional sessions of summer school this year to boost enrollment. For the first time there will be three sessions: a four-week intensive session begins in June that will allow students to take a quick course; a typical six-week session from June to July; and a new eight-week program from mid-June through August that will allow students to take courses such as science that were not offered during the summer in the past.

Debra Stakes, president of the Cuesta College Federation of Teachers, said that staff is looking at detailed studies to determine which students continue taking classes and which drop out.

“Individual faculty are working hard in the classroom to support students over rough spots,” Stakes said. “It is a multi-level effort by faculty, district staff and all parts of the college. We want to take care of students and return to sustainable enrollment.”

 

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