Cutting class: Community colleges see effects of state budget cuts

Cuts to Seattle-area community colleges in the face of a contracted state budget may deal a major blow to the state's still-suffering economy.

Crosscut archive image.

North Seattle Community College

Cuts to Seattle-area community colleges in the face of a contracted state budget may deal a major blow to the state's still-suffering economy.

In her ten years of teaching students in Seattle Central Community College’s award-winning film and video communications program, Sandra Cioffi has reason to be proud of her protégés.

Graduates of her two-year Associate of Applied Science degree program have made their mark as successful photojournalists, radio producers, independent video filmmakers, lighting technicians, set designers, technical directors, and editors. The program itself provides training for careers in television, video, film, and multimedia industries and is unique in its focus on current technology and experts from the media industry.

Cioffi is also justly proud of the national recognition the program has garnered since it was established 25 years ago. In October 1992, the Film and Video Communications Program was selected for the Region 10 Secretary’s Award by the U.S. Department of Education, which annually recognizes outstanding professional technical programs noted for dynamic teaching methodologies.

“Our film and video program is considered the Harvard of two-year training programs in Washington State,” Cioffi said. “Similar programs exist elsewhere, such as the Art Institute of Seattle, Bellevue College, and Cornish College of the Arts, but they’re much more expensive.”

Beyond mastering the technical skills of their craft, Cioffi’s students develop skills in written and oral communication, critical thinking and analysis, and human relations. Like many of Seattle Central Community College’s two-year degree programs, Film and Video Communications has appealed to high school graduates who ordinarily wouldn’t go on to a four-year college.

What’s equally impressive is that many of Cioffi students have gone on to pursue studies at four-year institutions such as New York University, Evergreen State College, and Central and Western Washington State Universities.

For Gabriel Culkin, 22, a second-year student, the film and video program has given him the confidence to succeed in the film industry. “As a student, I’ve had the opportunity to work on two Hollywood feature films and felt prepared.” Culkin already has lined up a new job as a key set production assistant for a new movie to be filmed in Seattle.

The popular film and video program is one of Seattle Central Community College’s signature programs, and enrollment has been burgeoning in the last decade. “In the 10 years I’ve taught at the program, we have not had one empty seat,” Cioffi said. “We’ve actually had to turn students away.”

The program has been especially successful at recruiting students of color, according to Karen Strickland, a longtime Seattle Central Community College faculty member who heads the Seattle chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “The program has a long waiting list of 55 students who are hoping to fill 32 seats in the fall.”

Now, with Washington’s worsening economic crisis, the Legislature’s 2011-2013 biennial budget has thrown a monkey wrench into their hopes to earn the coveted degree. Last May, lawmakers slashed $85 million from the state’s community and technical colleges’ budgets. As a result, Seattle Central Community College has to eliminate three of its degree programs — including film and video production. The other two slated for closure include the college’s interpreter training program, which prepares interpreters to work with the hearing-impaired, and publishing arts.

Cioffi is devastated by the budget cuts, announced June 6 of this year. “Current students enrolled in the program will be permitted to finish their degrees provided they do so by June 2012, but what will happen to the students who are just beginning the program this fall?”

Other programs are being scaled back too. Though Seattle Central’s apparel design program will still be partially state-funded, the college expects to seek private funds to compensate for its higher cost. Meanwhile, Strickland says, “The college’s opticianry program is being turned into a self-supported program, meaning it will no longer be state-funded.” The parent education program will also be forced to reduce the number of its state-funded, tuition-based sections. Finally, the college will close the Information Center and reduce the number of sections in Basic Skills.

Edmonds Community College is dealing with the cuts a little differently. Summer enrollment is now 5,905 students. As a result of the economic downturn, many students are retraining in such high-demand fields as aerospace, advanced materials science, computer technology, and nursing, which are offered at Edmonds. Forty-one percent of its graduates transfer to four-year colleges and university.

The school does not plan to eliminate any programs, however it will be cutting the budget for instructional programs by about $200,000, said President Jean Hernandez. “There will be 40 to 45 fewer class sections than last year, and the part-time faculty will be impacted directly by this reduction.”

The rest of Seattle Community College District’s 837 part-time instructors will also feel the pinch of cuts. “In Seattle, most part-timers are only allowed to teach 66 percent of a full-time load because if they teach more than that, they have to be paid from the full-time schedule, which is markedly more,” Strickland explained.

“With fewer course offerings, many part-timers will lose their classes. Tenured faculty and priority hires will not be [as] affected by the reductions, however. Priority hires can be, and have been, affected, as will tenured faculty if their programs are eliminated.  But most of the job loss will occur among part-time faculty.”

Overall, the Legislature’s budget cuts will result in a five percent reduction in course offerings for all campuses in the Seattle Community College District, said Strickland. South Seattle Community College will eliminate its commercial truck driving degree program, while North Seattle Community College’s real estate program will be pared back. A few certificates within the program have already been temporarily suspended because of the slow real estate job market.

Across Washington State, the budget cuts are also placing many other community and technical college programs in jeopardy. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges projects that as many as 25,000 students [or 10,000 full-time equivalent students, or FTES] could be turned away – a statewide enrollment drop from 359,000 to 334,000 students.

For the most part, colleges already have made the cuts, which include scaling back programs, or in some cases, eliminating entire programs. “The cuts vary by college,” said Charlie Earl, executive director of the state board. “Colleges make unique decisions based on their community, students, and local employers’ needs, as well as their individual budget constraints.”

Community college programs won't be the only victims of the state's slashed budget. The $85 million cuts also mean that financial assistance for community college students will suffer, Edmonds' Hernandez said . “Thirty-four percent of the college’s students are students of color. The college plans to increase its visibility with low-income and students of color in the future.”

“To that end, the college has now begun partnerships with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] and YMCA,” she said. “Edmonds Community College also serves a large number of homeless students and veterans who may be limited in the number of classes they can take because of the tuition increases.”

“The federal government continues to discuss ways to reduce Pell grants,” she said. “Reducing the maximum grants from $5,500 to $4,704, coupled with increasing tuition, and unknown state student aid budgets and awards, would either adversely affect our students’ ability to attend college [especially those in the low-to-mid family income levels], or if a student is able to attend, would substantially increase the student loan indebtedness.”

Students of color will be significantly affected by the state budget cuts, according to the state board. Thirty-six percent of Washington’s community and technical college students are students of color. “Serving 25,000 fewer students due to budget cuts is going to affect a lot of people, including students of color,” Earl said. “In spite of that trend, enrollment numbers for students of color have actually increased.”

Seattle Community College District Chancellor Jill A. Wakefield believes budget cuts mean that community colleges will find it even more challenging to keep pace with the demands of businesses seeking trained employees. “The Legislature made a number of difficult decisions related to higher education. Worker retraining funds were cut dramatically, based on the belief that the economy was recovering and employment was increasing,” she said. “We’re not seeing it. Our enrollment of unemployed workers is the same as last summer.”

"Our colleges and colleges across the state lost the special allocation for worker retraining that helped to train more than 600 additional laid-off workers for new jobs in Seattle. The funding was cut, although demand has continued,” Wakefield explained.

“Concurrently, we’re seeing an increase in the requests from business – especially health care, information technology, business services and manufacturing – for trained graduates to fill jobs where there is a skills gap. This just increases the demand on our programs to ensure that no job goes unfilled because of cuts to training programs,” she added.

But the district isn't going down without a fight. While the District’s state allocation has been reduced by $10-11 million, it expects to generate about $4-5 million to lessen the cuts of state funding. “Our net reduction in funding [state and tuition combined], compared to last year is about $5-6 million, or about six percent,” said Wakefield.

The AFT Seattle chapter is also concerned about how budget decisions are frequently made without faculty consultation and is calling for a system of shared governance, she said. The AFT is now mobilizing a campaign to garner support to reinvest in public education.

Still, in her 18 years of teaching at Seattle Central Community College, the 2011-2013 biennial budget cuts are the worst that Strickland has seen. “The American Federation of Teachers’ position is that this is primarily a revenue crisis. The state continues to rely on a regressive tax system, and that needs to change.”

Cutting programs such as film and video production, the interpreter training program, and publishing arts is unfortunate, she said, because they are all in the communications field. “Eliminating them will narrow the range of opportunities for students to work creatively and independently, and not necessarily for corporations.”

At the end of the day, most educational leaders agree that the Legislature’s far-reaching budget cuts will have lasting consequences for the state and region’s economic vitality.

“Each community and technical college plays a critical role in its own community when it comes to listening to local employers, creating the training programs they tell us they need, meeting their needs – as well as meeting student demand – and preparing a well-qualified workforce,” Earl said. “We are about jobs, and getting people back to work.”

“One of our main mission areas is preparing students for the good-paying jobs of the future. Colleges can’t do as much of that with reduced resources. Having fewer slots to prepare workers and professionals for careers is hard on our workforce and hard on our economy.”

An earlier version of this story appeared in the International Examiner; it is reprinted under a partnership with Crosscut.  The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.