A Campus Divided: The disconnect between financial security and academic success

By Steven Guzman, Editor-in-Chief

Los Angeles Harbor College has long dealt with budget deficits and the resulting crisis.

But nothing like what it is grappling with now has ever threatened to change the face of “Happy Harbor” so dramatically, possibly forever.

Depending on who you believe, or what fact sheet you read, the college is currently $5.7 million in the red. The plans to get the balance sheet under control aren’t pretty. Those include, but are not limited to:

1) The loss of anywhere from 20-50 employees through a “Golden Handshake” recently approved by the Los Angeles Community College District. Most positions aren’t expected to be replaced immediately, if at all.
2) Slashing about 150 class sections for Fall, 2017 in what the Harbor administration terms “enrollment management.” The college sliced 50 this Spring and about 90 in Fall, 2016.
3) To be profitable, courses, according to the administration, must hold 33-36 students per class. Those that don’t may also get the ax, which means another 150 sections may be on the hot seat.
4) Among the retirements are some longtime instructors who know the workings of this institution well: the president and the historian of the Academic Senate, the director of the Learning Research Center and the head of the Work Environment Committee.
5) Also retiring are key positions such as plumber, electrician and head of facilities, “The legacy they have in their brains, the knowledge they have of every inch of this campus is priceless,” said Direct of College Facilities Bill Englert.

Harbor has been in the hole for as long as anyone can remember. But things weren’t that bad in the early part of the 2000s and the district allowed the college to pay off deficits on a time scale. The overruns began to balloon after the economic recession hit in 2008, according to Vice President of Administrative Services Robert Suppelsa. It finally reached a point this year in which the district put LAHC under financial accountability measures.
Among other things, it asked for a five year plan detailing what the college will do to solve the problem.
According to Suppelsa, if the college doesn’t live up to the plan, the district will step in and do things its own way, which could mean sweeping changes in, among other things, the college administration, where there’s is currently discussion about adding another dean – making Harbor among the most top-heavy in the nine-college district.
Nonetheless, in meetings during the spring Suppelsa hammered home that he believes enrollment management, a term used in higher education for a variety of things, is the way to go.That includes cutting low-enrolled sections
“The issue is to put forth a class offering list that you can afford,” he said, “and balance it against the students need to transfer and become successful.”

Suppelsa said one of the big problems is that 92 percent of the college budget is salaries and those are hard to cut..
“The way Harbor will fix its budget,” he said.”Is to deal with smart enrollment management and balance classes needed consistently with the enrollment numbers and paying attention to all its nickels, dimes and quarters.”

The way in which academic institutions such as the Harbor break even within LACCD is through reaching Full-time Equivalent Student (FTES) goals. A total of 10 students is equivalent to 1 FTES, 1 FTES is equivalent to $5,004. Currently the college is budgeted at 7,140 FTES, but will miss its goal by 500 ending its fiscal year at 6,600 FTES, or approximately missing $2.7 million.

According to Suppelsa, 33 to 36 students, approximately 3.5 FTES, are needed in a class for it to break even or be deemed profitable enough to cover faculty costs. Out of 925 classes offered fall 2016, under this assumption, only 300 classes were actually profitable. The college at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester cut around 90 under enrolled classes, saving approximately $1 million, however, the college still had 250 classes during fall semester which had an enrollment of 15 or less, thus being unable to cover their faculty cost.

But is all this attention to cost cutting at the expense of educational needs the right way to go?

“You want to make sure you are taking care of all the students,” said Paul Grady, a long-time faculty member and director of the Learning Resource Center who has chosen to take the Handshake. “That’s the issue now. Classes are not something to go at with an ax.”

Grady said education is not something that was meant to make a profit.

“What we need to do is break even and have a little bit extra to do things,” he said.

Englert, director of college facilities, said it will be sometime before quality replacements can be found.

“We are critical to student learning. We are equal to faculty positions,” he said. “The two have to be together or else this college won’t run.”

That goes for instructors, too, where Suppelsa admits it will be ‘’possibly one year of adjuncts [part-timers]” before replacements can be found.

“It takes about a year for the district hiring process to go through,” he said.

There is fear that if classes are cut, students will exit to nearby colleges. As of May, El Camino College in nearby Torrance is offering around 1,900 classes for Fall 2017. The Pacific Coast Campus at Long Beach City College is about 15 minutes to the East and is offering classes in 31 subjects.

Suppelsa doesn’t buy a mass exodus. He thinks students from LAHC, should a course be cancelled, will most likely opt to attend another LACCD campus like Trade Tech, Southwest or West Los Angeles.

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