While Santa Fe Community College is seeing its enrollment figures return to pre-pandemic levels, the unpredictability of the last year has made it difficult for the school to plan for the future as it struggles to emerge from a financial emergency that forced it to cut five of its programs.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,500 students were enrolled for fall classes at the college, a figure that is on par with the same time period in 2019.
“While there’s still much to do, these numbers are indicating that there’s reason for optimism,” Marcos Maez, director of recruitment and dual credit, told the school’s governing board Wednesday. “Students are coming back and are taking classes at SFCC. These numbers are definitely a good example of that.”
Last fall, enrollment fell 28 percent, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic. The decline cost the school $2 million in tuition and fees.
In May 2020, President Becky Rowley declared a financial emergency, giving her full control over staffing and budgeting decisions that would normally be open to public discussion.
On Wednesday, the governing board approved a 1.5 percent raise for Rowley, increasing her pay to $192,850 a year.
While the college hopes to see enrollment rebound this fall, “this situation has really disrupted our ability to make confident trends,” said Nick Telles, the college’s vice president of finance.
It’s also unclear when the school will emerge from its financial crisis.
“This fall, faculty members, hopefully in tandem with SFCC staff members, will begin actively collaborating with our administration and members of the board with a primary goal of establishing concrete criteria for declaring and lifting financial emergency status at SFCC,” faculty Chairwoman Kate McCahill said, “which we hope will make it easier for faculty and staff alike to prepare for financial emergency declarations and better anticipate when they might be lifted.”
Board Chairman Jack Sullivan warned that a checklist could “strangle you.”
“You might never uncheck all the list. You may never get out of the financial emergency,” he said. “At some point in time, you have to make a judgment based on experience as a professional in the field that now is the time to do that.”
Board member Piér Quintana cited reporting in Inside Higher Ed, a national news outlet, that showed declining enrollment and evaporating pandemic relief funds may cause community colleges across the U.S. to experience dire financial straits.
“I think that’s also something for us to monitor as we think about lifting the bona fide financial emergency and looking at criteria,” she said. “It appears the effects we’re going to experience from the pandemic may be longer term, because we were already experiencing downturns in enrollment.”