Desperate to reverse an enrollment free-fall, the Gila Community College (GCC) board slashed tuition rates and reinstalled free tuition for seniors at its July 18 meeting.
By any analysis, Gila Community College has hemorrhaged students in the last four years, but will reducing what it costs to attend GCC solve the college’s problem of losing students?
Board member Tom Loeffler had the same question at the meeting.
“Do you have any data to support your theory if reducing tuition increases enrollment?” said Loeffler.
“I have the assumption that if you lower your prices you increase participation,” said board member Sam Moorhead, who brought the new tuition schedule before the board.
His proposal revived the north/south split that has bedeviled the board for years.
Board President Larry Stephenson, from Payson, refused to even participate in the discussion or vote.
The recently adopted fiscal 2013-14 budget assumes tuition will provide $1.4 million of the district’s $6.3 million in revenue. Most of the rest comes from property taxes. But that requires the board to make an educated guess about enrollment trends.
The approval of the new lower tuition costs reflects two assumptions.
One — seniors will return in sufficient numbers that the money the college receives from the state based on enrollment will at least cover the cost of the classes.
Two — that the alarming declines in the number of tuition-paying students will at least level off.
Already, the enrollment decline has cost the district about $300,000 in state aid.
A breakdown of the enrollment numbers appears in a report by Glen Snider, who works for Eastern Arizona College (EAC), which manages GCC and provides its accreditation.
He noted that the enrollment of seniors taking less than two units has dropped more than any other category at the Payson campus.
That prompted the board majority to push to reverse its decision three years ago to eliminate free tuition for seniors 55 years and older, even though the amount of state aid per student has dropped sharply since that time.
The three board members from the southern reaches of Gila County argued that restoring free tuition will bring back enough seniors so the college can cover the cost of the classes from state aid alone, even without tuition.
Globe board member Robert Ashford said, “we should try (passing the new tuition schedule) and see. We need to do something because we’re bleeding profusely and losing students.”
The Legislature provides state support based on the number of “full time equivalent students (FTSE)” — which is 30 credit hours. The state provides $410 for each FTSE. That works out to a state payment of about $13.67 per credit, according to numbers Loeffler received from Susan Gallo who prepares monthly financial reports for the board.
That means the state would pay the district $840 for a three-credit class with 20 students, which is generally less than the district pays its adjunct instructors. Mind you, GCC pays its part-time faculty about 50 percent less than Mesa Community College.
“According to the proposal before us ... we’re going to lose in income $313,000 (from the budget),” said Loeffler. “Now you’re projecting we’re going to increase the number of students, especially seniors. If we go up to additional 200, it will give us an additional $10,000.”
Gallo said the 2013-14 GCC budget assumes the college will receive $370,700 from state FTSE payments.
The board struggled to understand the potential impact of reinstating the free tuition for seniors.
In his report, Snider showed a 58 percent drop in the enrollment of senior citizens between 2009 and 2013, which covers the period when the district eliminated free tuition for that group.
If the college recovered all of the seniors it lost, more than 1,300, it could bring a minimum of $18,000 in additional state aid.
However, the analysis didn’t estimate how much the district would have to spend to offer classes if those 1,300 part-time students returned. If the 1,300 added students just two classes per year, the district would have to provide teachers for something like 100 additional classes.
Full-time faculty earn about $4,000 per class. Adjuncts make $800 to $1,800. That puts the faculty cost of teaching 100 extra classes at between $80,000 and $400,000.
But Loeffler worries the consequences of voting for the lower tuition and return to free senior tuition will cause the college to lose more money.
“For every free senior credit we enroll we lose $26, but receive the $13.67 (FTSE) for a loss of $12.33,” he wrote in an e-mail, “And for every X number of additional students in a class we have to pay the instructor X more. So you can see how financially devastating Moorhead’s schedule will be on the college’s viability.”
While the number of seniors taking classes dropped the most, declines took place in almost every category — except for high school students taking GCC classes.
The new tuition schedule will save students from $20 to $250 depending on how many credits they take. That money will come out of the already adopted budget.
Ironically, the decline among both seniors and first-year, full-time, tuition-paying students has bottomed out and started to increase.
Moreover, the number of full-time students taking 12 units or more has also started to rise, perhaps indicating the decline has already bottomed out.