In summary

College faculty for decades have been seeking more money to hire full-time instructors. But could that hurt colleges financially down the line if student enrollments continue to sag?

Rarely are college bean-counters skeptical of receiving more money, but a plan to give California’s community college system hundreds of millions of dollars for faculty is dividing finance officials and professors.

For college financial officials, the new money would come at an inopportune time: Enrollment plunged across the 116-college system by 11% last fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With fewer students to teach, financial officers worry that committing $170 million to hire 2,000 more full-time faculty now, per a budget blueprint approved by key legislative panels in late May, will lead to problems later.

“Excessive hiring in a declining enrollment environment can lead to painful budget reductions, layoffs, furloughs,” the association of community college financial officers wrote last week in a letter to top lawmakers in the Legislature’s budget committees. The financial officers would instead like the money to come with more flexibility. 

Faculty grouse at that skepticism. They point to the college system’s decades-long inability to meet a quasi-mandate of having full-time faculty teach at least 75% of classes. Today that figure sits at 59% and has barely budged in three decades. The legislative largesse of $170 million is meant to drive the college system closer to that 75% goal, an aspirational benchmark that’s been on the community college system’s books since the 1970s.

“The fact that we have money proposed for the first time in a long time of the magnitude that is required to really be significant and we’re going to turn that down? That doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, the chief advocacy group representing community college faculty.

The drive for more full-time faculty

The leadership of the community college system supports more full-time faculty, in part because more instructors mean more personal relationships with students, something that research indicates is a crucial step in helping students complete college.

But state funding for full-time faculty never kept up with the amount needed to reach that 75% goal. Meanwhile community colleges, like the rest of U.S. higher education, have saved money by increasingly relying on hiring part-time instructors who earn less than full-time faculty. Just how much less is hard to determine given that wage decisions are made locally; a bill backed by labor groups to come up with an answer is stuck in the state Assembly and is opposed by the system’s chancellor’s office.

Colleges “balance the budget on the backs of part-time faculty,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, a photography professor at College of the Canyons and incoming president of the faculty advocacy group. 

This concern about part-time faculty isn’t new: When the 75% goal was put into California law in 1988, the bill’s language warned of a “proper concern about the effect of an overreliance upon part-time faculty.”

This year’s proposed legislative blueprint also calls for $75 million in ongoing funding for part-time instructors. The Legislature has until June 15 to approve this and other funding for the coming year’s state budget. 

Funding flexibility

It’s not that community college finance officers reject more money outright. They want flexibility with any dollars they get, leaving them free to hire more financial aid advisors, academic counselors or other employees.

Though the community college system receives more overall total dollars from the state than the University of California or Cal State systems, the money comes out to a lot less per student given that community colleges have more than twice as many students as the UC and CSU combined. That leaves community colleges feeling perpetually squeezed financially.

From the perspective of community college budget officers, going on a state-mandated hiring spree ties the hands of campuses. The full-time faculty “may be teaching half empty courses. In the meantime, since you’re funding that, you’d have to reduce funding in other areas,” said Dan Troy, a board member of the Association of Chief Business Officials who also oversees financial planning at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

Faculty think more instructors is a net win for colleges financially, not just academically. The more faculty a college has, the likelier students can find classes they need. Because the majority of the state funding that goes to colleges is based on student enrollment, finding slots for more students is a fiscal win, Brill-Wynkoop said. “You would think that investing in faculty should be the number one goal of an institution, because the thing that’s closest to students are faculty,” she said.

Other fiscal headwinds

Adding to the financial uncertainty is a perpetually looming budget reckoning that fiscal watchers say will only further squeeze colleges. In 2018 lawmakers and then-Gov. Jerry Brown overhauled how individual community colleges are funded — basing it not on the number of enrolled students but on a new formula that also takes into account student completion rates and how many students qualify for financial aid. 

The formula, originally set to fully kick in this year, has been pushed back in every annual budget since the formula was created. If it went into effect today, about 30 college districts would receive less state support than they currently get, some having their funding drop by more than $10 million.

The Legislature wants to push back the start date a few more years into the future. 

Another point of contention between faculty and college financial officers:  a little-noticed but crucial calculation the community college system uses that can determine whether campuses spend millions of dollars more on faculty.

Each year the chancellor’s office uses a complex formula to calculate how many full-time instructors a college must have. The California community college faculty group wants to raise that minimum.

A higher floor means the system comes closer to reaching the 75% full-time faculty goal. But doing so also means that no college can dip below that threshold without enduring fines – adding to the fiscal anxieties of community college finance officers. The association of college finance officers begged lawmakers not to go down that route in their letter last week, clearly fearing such an outcome is possible as a condition of more funding.

Pushing a full-time faculty requirement is to “micromanage the money we get,” Troy said. “We think there are better ways to spend the state money.” 

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Mikhail ZinshteynHigher Education Reporter

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...