In the wake of highly-publicized financial woes, East Mississippi Community College President Scott Alsobrooks has listed the institution’s decline in enrollment as his number one concern for the future.
At a media event at the college’s Lion Hills Center, Alsobrooks gave an address on the state of EMCC, sharing financial and enrollment data as well as an update on the college’s Communiversity. This also included a discussion of some of the institution’s future plans. In August, it came to light that the college had $710,000 in it general operating balance, with approximately $10 million there a decade ago.
The college has shown a 5% drop in enrollment over the past four years with a 10th day headcount of 3,882 students, compared to last year’s 4,086 and the 4,261 headcount recorded at the start of the 2016-2017 fall semester. Enrollment at the Golden Triangle campus is currently 2,536. In Scooba, the number is 933. He said the enrollment drop on the Golden Triangle campus was more severe than in Scooba.
“Our numbers are tied to revenue,” Alsobrooks said. “We need to turn this tide and we need to grow.”
Alsobrooks said much of the enrollment decline was tied to a stronger economy drawing prospective students into the workforce or straight into a four-year university.
“That’s certainly showing up in our enrollment picture,” Alsobrooks said.
He then said many of the state’s other rural community colleges were facing similar declines. In total, seven of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges showed declines in enrollment this year. These include the nearby Meridian Community College with a 4% drop, Itawamba Community College with a 6.1% drop and East Central Community College with a 6.9% drop in enrollment for this year. The college with the most drastic drop in enrollment was East Central, while Pearl River Community College showed the most substantial growth in enrollment at 7.2%.
“They can go to work,” Alsobrooks said. “It’s a really good economy. Again, that’s a national trend. I subscribe to a lot of publications for community colleges, and you can read research about that from colleges all over the United States of America that are experiencing the same things that we’re experiencing."
He said some of the six counties in EMCC’s district were also showing population declines, and emphasized that the college could only recruit within the boundaries of its six-county district. EMCC’s district includes the counties of Oktibbeha, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Kemper and Lauderdale.
He also spoke to the importance of retaining students and said dual-enrollment, while a good deal for the students, made it difficult for the college to retain many of its students past one year. According to enrollment data, the college’s 745 dual-enrollment students make up 19% of enrollment. This figure includes the 221 students enrolled in the Golden Triangle Early College High School on the Golden Triangle campus.
Alsobrooks said the college’s budget for 2019-2020 showed a projected deficit of $1,881,351, which he said would be covered by the college’s fund balance. Total Projected Revenues are at $31,242,866 and total projected expenses are at $33,124,217.
“That’s primarily the startup cost to get the Communiversity up and going,” Alsobrooks said. “It’s quite a substantial deficit, but the college itself has very little money invested in the facility. The counties came together with the Appalachian Regional Commission and collaborated to put the money together to build it.”
He also said a round of cuts had been put into place to help keep the college in the black, with more to likely follow next year.
“We made several cuts this past year, and if enrollment keeps going down, we’ll have to cut operational costs again,”Alsobrooks said. Seventy-five or so percent of our budget is people, so when you talk about balancing the budget and cutting things, you can’t cut electricity. There’s certain things you can’t cut. The people’s where the money’s at, and unfortunately we had to make a few cuts this year and make cuts to some other budgets, and we’ll probably have to do it again next year if this enrollment decline continues.
According to the college’s general fund budgets over the past eight years, a decline in tuition in fees has accompanied the declining enrollment. The college’s 2012 budget showed more than $15 million collected from tuition and fees, with the number being just over $13 million in the 2019 budget. The college’s state appropriation also shrank by more than $700,000 in the same period, with its 2019 state appropriation at $12,373,971.
Alsobrooks said the college planned to try to raise private funds, and to use grant funds to finance new programs whenever possible, including possible growth of allied health programs.
During the economic downturn, while it’s enrollment was up, EMCC began many capital projects including a 5,000-seat stadium on its Scooba campus, in 2011, the purchase of the bankrupt Columbus Country Club and conversion to Lion Hills in 2012 and ground was broken on the Golden Triangle campus student union in 2014. Plans for the Communiversity also began in 2014. All these projects began toward the end of Rick Young’s time as president of the college.
At the Communiversity, enrollment is currently 197 students, with the college having considered 200 the target number for the first year, with local industries stating a need for 400 skilled workers.
"To fill the natural attrition rate in the Golden Triangle, we need 400 (students) a year,” Alsobrooks said. “We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to grow this. We need parents to understand that their kids don’t have to go get that four-year degree, they can come to the Communiversity and get a great credential, but we’re going to need help from the community. We’re at 200. We need 400 just to fill these jobs that are out there. the Paccars, the Auroras, the steel mills, places like that.”
He said three candidates would be interviewed for the currently unfilled Communiversity director position on Oct. 15, one candidate from Mississippi, one from Texas and one from Alabama.
“We’ve got a pretty interesting pool of candidates coming in to interview for that job,” Alsobrooks said.
He also emphasized that although the college is having to dip into its reserve to help the beginning of the Communiversity, EMCC did not have to spend much on the construction of the facility, with the Appalachian Regional Commission, the state of Mississippi and the three Golden Triangle counties footing most of the bill for the $43 million facility.
Alsobrooks said the Communiversity’s Imagination Center would also help recruit students for local jobs over the years. The Imagination Center holds several exhibits from local industries.
“We’re trying to open young peoples’ eyes to this whole world that many don’t know about and the earning power that comes along with these degrees,”Alsobrooks said.
A grand opening ceremony for the Communiversity is scheduled for Oct. 18. Projected revenue for the facility this fiscal year is $925,000.
“Whoever has the workforce will win economic development projects,” Alsobrooks said. “If we can show that we’re building that worker pipeline, we might get more work for them. “He said the college’s Lion Hills Center in Columbus would likely begin breaking even in about a year, with memberships rising and an enrollment of 47 students across several programs at the center.
“Numbers for golf started falling off several years back,” Alsobrooks said. “Golf’s starting to pick back up a little bit. We are starting to experience new membership and more play.”
He said the college came close to breaking even on Lion Hills last year.
“There was some investment made, and we’re starting to see a little payback,” Alsobrooks said. Projected revenue from Lion Hills for this year is $227,000.
Alsobroks admitted that despite much investment into EMCC athletics, particularly the EMCC Lions Football Team, there was not much return.
“I’ll admittedly say, we’re not just looking at the cost of athletics, we’re looking at the cost of everything as we experience this enrollment decline, we’ve got some areas that we have to cut, and we might have to cut it again,” Alsobrooks said.
He also said the effect of the Netflix series “Last Chance U,” which featured members of the football team, had been negligible.
“There was a little money that came through with ‘Last Chance U,’ not significant,” Alsobrooks said. “I think the notoriety received by some of the characters in the show was great, but from a financial standpoint it wasn’t significant.”
Finally, he expressed little concern about the effect of some tensions and disputes on the college’s board of trustees, calling them “noise.”
“We’re going to focus on growing this college, adding these programs, providing these student services,” Alsobrooks said.