On Feb. 24, 2022, Interim President Gary Locke announced in an email to the Bellevue College (BC) community that BC is beginning to suffer from budgetary challenges. While previously the school had flat enrollment rates – neither rising nor declining by more than a percent or two a year – we saw a massive 16 percent decrease in enrollment for winter quarter. Jim Craswell is the Executive Director of Finance and Budgeting at Bellevue College. As he describes it, “Our alarm system went off when the enrollment didn’t come in as we had expected, it was down about 7 percent for fall quarter. And so we started communicating that out to the staff, looking at the impact of the revenue, and started slowing this spending down at that point. [Then], winter enrollment came in, and we were down like 16 percent. And so then it looks like ‘Okay, now, now, this is really getting serious’ … To go from a 1 percent change, or drop every year, to a 15 percent [drop] is significant. It’s nothing that we can just kind of do little things in the background and keep the overall experience the same.”
Bellevue College normally operates on an annual budget of about $100 million per year. The current 16 percent drop, combined with a projected further 15 percent drop for next year, causes a full 10 percent deficit in the expected income for the school, or about $11 million. “It’s still a bigger bite out of the budget than we normally would expect, or that we’ve ever seen in the last few years.” Tuition income commonly fluctuates at schools like Bellevue College. Some quarters will have high enrollment rates and a correspondingly high tuition income, whereas others will be lower. For employees like Craswell, their job is to predict what those enrollment rates will be ahead of time so that they can properly predict how many sections for each class they will need and how much income they can expect to work with. However, it’s very difficult to predict a drop this significant. When a decrease in budget is expected and planned for, usually the student body won’t notice anything. The only things that are cut are extra sections of classes that had no enrollment anyways, or other on-campus resources that were underutilized due to the lower number of students.
Craswell explained, “Our primary concern is to keep the mission stable of what we’re delivering to students. And so when enrollment goes up, we want to make sure that we’re staffing up to handle it, because you can have the same problem. If there’s growth, if you don’t increase the funding, then the experience for the student gets more difficult … Then conversely, when enrollment goes down, we have to scale down.”.
Craswell and the rest of the budgeting team hope to execute a similar strategy to recover from the $11 million budgetary deficit. They have already come up with about $5 million of the $11 million they need to find, and hope to make the rest of it up by spreading out the decreases in sections over the course of the next several quarters.
Craswell explained, “We may not do it as quickly as we normally would, we may spread it out over a longer period of time to kind of soften that blow. And we would then dip into our reserves to make up the difference in the revenue. But that is the goal, how that might impact the students is that there will be fewer sections. Right now there are fewer sections running winter quarter classes running this quarter than there were last winter. And there are fewer in the fall, and there’ll be fewer in the spring.”
Students shouldn’t really notice this impact at all, as long as enrollment rates are predicted accurately – something that is more easily said than done. There is a chance that it will be much more difficult to get into a class you want, especially if it is a more obscure course with higher demand that was not foreseen.
BC describes its mission as such. “Bellevue College is a student-centered, comprehensive and innovative college, committed to teaching excellence, that advances the life-long educational development of its students while strengthening the economic, social and cultural life of its diverse community.” The way the budgetary dollars are distributed is designed to reflect that. Compared to many other colleges in the Wash. State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), Bellevue College has the majority of its funding end up in the classroom, or otherwise going directly to support the students’ education. So, even though there may be alarm bells ringing right now, you, as a student, should not be overly affected by this.
Craswell reassures, “Hopefully if we do this right, it should be smooth. I can tell you that already, we’ve made up about half of that gap. So we’re down about $5 million. And we’ve done it just very carefully and very methodically and kind of behind the scenes. So that’s the good news, whether we can get the second half is what will be our challenge.”
But why is Bellevue College seeing such a massive drop in enrollment in the first place? When asked about why he thought we were seeing the drop, Crasswell guessed that “The economy is just smokin’ hot right now. And so normally community colleges do well during recessions. So we thought COVID was going to bring a recession, and that the economy would shut down and lots of people would be coming back to school. So we were expecting to have a lot more students [rather] than [what] came, and then, [that] recession never materialized.” So between the economy’s unpredictability and COVID causing a massive shift to online classes, Bellevue College now faces this major budgetary issue.
Once again, students should not be overly concerned yet. If you are wanting to help out, the best thing you can do is enroll as soon as possible to make it easier for the budgeting team at BC to predict demand for classes. Craswell pleads, “The best thing that students can do is engage, study hard, work on your plans and be successful.”