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2010 February 22 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: N. Idaho College Squeezed Between Enrollment Jump And Reductions In State Funding

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — North Idaho College President Priscilla Bell told lawmakers that state funding for higher education is shrinking at a time when enrollment on her campus has swelled with an influx of unemployed workers going back to school.

“Much, if not all, of the dramatic enrollment growth is being tied to the economy,” Bell told the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee.

The higher-than-expected revenues from student tuition helped the school cover most of a $766,000 loss in state funding budgeted for this year. That includes $603,500 from a 6 percent holdback in state spending on higher education the governor ordered in September and $162,500 from another 1.5 percent holdback he proposed earlier this month.

The budget cuts, while never convenient, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“When enrollments are increasing the impact is even more severe,” Bell said.

The college, which serves more than 20,000 students through degree offerings and other programs such as workforce training and Head Start, shed two high-level positions and left other roles unfilled to help cover the cuts this year. The college is training some staff members and adjunct faculty to help carry the student advising load.

More personnel cuts and the potential elimination of programs may be necessary to handle future cuts, Bell said.

“All options will be on the table,” she said.

The college requested $10.4 million in funding for the fiscal year that begins in July, while the governor’s proposed budget spends just $9.1 million and doesn’t including funding for inflation adjustments or employee compensation hikes.

The $1.3 million decrease includes a loss of $332,500 in state general funds.

Meanwhile, student enrollment this semester at the college has increased an estimated 20 percent compared to the same time last year, Bell said. That’s on top of a 17 percent enrollment increase in spring 2009 compared to the previous year.

The college also reported a 61 percent increase in students taking online courses since the 2005-06 academic year and dramatic increases in a dual-enrollment program allowing high school students to earn college credit.

Sen. Dean Cameron asked Bell how supportive she was of a proposed infusion of cash to help the state’s newest community college handle a dramatic enrollment increase, if it meant less state money for the school she heads.

The College of Western Idaho, narrowly backed by voters in Ada and Canyon counties in 2007, opened last January.

Bell said the state’s two other community colleges, North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho were assured when CWI opened that it would not drain money from their respective shares of state funding.

“I only have so many dollars in the pie to spend, we’re looking at reductions for everyone,” Cameron said.

The governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year spends 4 percent less on Idaho’s community colleges compared to this year.

The state’s three community colleges are the workhorses of the higher education system, Bell told lawmakers, and the money that goes toward funding their operations is “the best money that you can invest.”

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