March 3, 2020 10:35:44 AM
As the number of enrolled students keeps plummeting, East Mississippi Community College's administrators and board of trustees are searching for ways to boost enrollment.
At a Monday board meeting at Lion Hills Center, administrators suggested new investments to draw potential students, and several board members cautioned against making financial commitments without a clear picture of where EMCC's finances stand.
Student enrollment at EMCC -- a major source of revenue for the college -- has been steadily shrinking over the past 10 years, coinciding with the trend among two-year institutions nationwide, according to Susan Baird, director of institutional research and effectiveness at the school. Last fall, 3,882 students were enrolled at EMCC, a 5-percent decline compared to the 4,086 students in the previous fall, she said.
EMCC administrators noted on Monday there are several factors potentially affecting enrollment.
Birth rates across the EMCC six-county service area (Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay, Kemper, Lauderdale and Noxubee) have been trending down, Baird said, which will likely bring down the number of college-age students in the next few years, except for a brief peak in 2024 due to a uptick in birth rates in 2006. While anyone can enroll at EMCC on their own, the college can only recruit students within its service area.
James Rush, interim vice president of instruction, said the dual enrollment program hurts the enrollment numbers because it is "affecting the amount of time a student normally would have spent at (EMCC)." The program allows eligible high school students to take a certain amount of college courses at the same time.
Tony Montgomery, dean of students at the EMCC Scooba campus, said students are also likely pushed away due to a lack of housing on campus. More than 70 students were put on a waiting list for dorm units on the Scooba campus last fall, he said.
"You are a mother and you call, and I tell you there's 80 people in front of you," Montgomery said. "Are you gonna put your name on the waitlist?"
Montgomery said increasing dorm capacity would reassure those who are without housing options but who plan to attend EMCC. A new dorm that provides 146 beds on the Scooba campus is now under construction, he said, which would help place students on the current waiting list and create room for extra enrollment.
Lowndes County trustee Greg Stewart, however, said adding dorms would not be as good an investment as providing students with programs that EMCC doesn't already offer.
"When you build a dorm, you have an investment that, if you later see this as a bad idea, it's very hard to back off from that," Stewart said. "You really have to have a solid reason and ... a long-term business case that allows you to feel comfortable.
"There is more risk there compared to adding programs," Stewart said.
Joe Max Higgins, who was appointed as a Lowndes County trustee in January, referred to the enrollment decline as the "new normal." Like Stewart, Higgins advised the board against investing in new buildings or programs until the financial situation is clear.
Instead of spending money on boosting enrollment numbers, he said, the board should be cutting costs to build up operation funds.
"Is somebody looking at the cuts needed to keep us where we need to be if this is the new normal?" Higgins asked.
EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks told The Dispatch the school has cut costs across the board already. Most recently, he said, the school has let go several non-faculty staff, including chefs, on the culinary program at Lion Hills Center in an effort to "restructure the operation."
"We've eliminated several administrative slots," Alsobrooks said. "We'll continue to look at every opportunity to save money through the indirect costs."
Alsobrooks said his goal is to avoid cutting costs on instruction faculty in the future to make sure the quality of education doesn't decline.
Higgins' question comes at a time when EMCC's general fund balance has taken a steep dive over the past decade, falling from roughly $11 million in 2010 to $710,844 by the end of June 2018. On top of the decline of enrollment, athletic spending also largely drained the fund balance in fiscal year 2018, burning $2.04 million that year.
The yearslong deficits prompted county supervisors to ask for a state audit into the school's finances last year.
Call for financial transparency
At the meeting, Higgins pushed for more detailed accounting on EMCC's budget and expenditure reports.
Pointing to travel expenses placed under the consent agenda, Higgins said he would like to see estimated costs as well as the source of funding for each item.
"(If) this is going to be paid out of our local funds, we need some kind of affirmation that the local funds exist," Higgins said. "Do we have the money? Is it in the budget? ... Otherwise, we are just approving 'Go, go, go.' We don't know how much and we don't know where it's coming from."
The board unanimously agreed with Higgins and approved adding more details about each item on paper going forward.
Higgins said he also hoped that the expenditure reports can be broken down by program and by location. EMCC has a summary sheet in detail for the Lion Hills Center financials, he said, but the line items for other programs on the current report may not be reflecting the entire cost of the department.
"I think this was done ... because of the scrutiny that Lion Hills is under because it's losing money," Higgins said. "I suspect that we've got a lot of programs that we don't know what the costs are, and they are abnormally and excessively higher than what's being presented.
"I was (looking at) the band program, and it was about a quarter of a million dollars. Quite frankly, as a lay person, that seems high," he added. "And then I look at the band scholarships of $360,000 in addition to that, it seems excessive."
The budgeted expenditure for the EMCC band program is $249,092, according to a copy of the fiscal year expenditure budget summary obtained by The Dispatch. Alsobrooks said scholarships have to be documented separately under its own category, which is required by state law.
While the accounting staff will attempt to separate the transportation cost for each program going forward, Alsobrooks said, some costs of each program may be difficult to extract because some resources are shared among departments.
Higgins suggested at the meeting to establish a financial committee to closely examine EMCC's finances, which Alsobrooks echoed.
Alsobrooks said he hopes to take a fresh look at the accounting process during the next budget season.
"We want to set it up properly and go about spending our money the way we said we were," he said. "We wanna get the line items labeled correctly and the right amount of money budgeted in them."
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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