By Jenny Neyman
Kenai Peninsula College got high marks last week during a visit from the University of Alaska’s newly appointed present, Dr. Jim Johnsen.
“KPC provides a really important role for the university system. It plays a really, really important function in providing access to high-quality and, I would say, cost-effective higher education for the people here,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen specifically praised the school for being a pathway to jobs, for its e-learning capabilities and the school’s JumpStart program, allowing high school students to take college classes at a reduced cost, thanks to funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“The investment this community is making in the future opportunities for its kids is impressive. And that’s something to be really proud of here,” Johnsen said.
As with all the university’s community campuses, KPC isn’t just an institution for learning. Its function is multifaceted.
“We play an important role, not just an educational role in those communities, but a cultural role, a community center-type role, we’re often the library of the community, we’re often the gathering place of the community. So we’ll continue to play those important roles,” Johnsen said.
As the University of Alaska faces a difficult budget with a deficit of anywhere from $15 million to $57 million, depending on the depth of the funding cuts from the governor and Legislature, Johnsen assures that the community campuses won’t be asked to bear a disproportionate amount of the cost-cutting burden.
“They’re just critical, and to do something like — as has been suggested to me, ‘To just shut down the community campuses.’ It’s a nonstarter in my book,” he said.
The community campuses could play a big part in getting the university back on firmer financial footing. Enrollment is down about 4.5 percent across the university system. That’s largely because Alaska high school enrollments are down, which narrows a big pipeline of new university students. As KPC Director Gary Turner points out, it’s also from competition from other universities.
“It’s the University of Phoenix, it’s Southern New Hampshire, my gosh. There’s 12, 13, 15 universities operating in our state that are not the University of Alaska. That’s a big deal. We’re losing market share,” Turner said.
E-learning is a way to draw new students within Alaska, and beyond.
“The Board of Regents has created four different task forces, one being about e-learning and how do we make it more robust, how do we serve our students? Do we want to recruit more out of state? Do we want to recruit more internationally?” Turner said.
KPC has been a leader in that realm, having expanded into e-learning about 10 years ago. That technology not only could help boost enrollments, but could help trim the budget within the university system, as well.
“Gary can deliver classes for some of the other campuses via distance so that they don’t have to build those faculties, they don’t have to build those programs, they can rely on Gary for that. So there’s more and more sharing happening across the system. So I think that’s one way of ensuring the value of our community campuses while bringing the cost down,” Johnsen said.
But that doesn’t mean KPC won’t feel the pain of budget cuts. The college is going through its own difficult budget process this winter. KPC already trimmed $348,000 last year, and Turner is asking his executive committee to plan for a 10 percent cut next year. With almost 70 percent of the college’s budget being in personnel, that means things like reducing office hours, staff hours and maybe even staff.
“What I also then asked the supervisors to do is, ‘OK, when you’ve done the fiscal ’17 plan of 10 percent. Now take that, and what are you going to do in fiscal ’18 if you have another 10 (percent)?’ That’s when it gets hard — harder. It’s hard, regardless,” he said.
Turner said that KPC isn’t pulling back on e-learning but won’t continue to expand its offerings as its budget tightens. Without more funding for more faculty, those programs are as big as they’re going to get. Instead, KPC is focusing more on its classrooms.
“We’re going to start looking more inward as to how do we get more face-to-face students, too? We’ve been starting to recruit in the villages. We’re getting our more to the high schools more than we have in the past. We’re going to see more face-to-face students, and I think we’re going to make progress,” Turner said.
KPC conducted a survey in January looking for budget-balancing ideas. The results will be released to faculty after winter break as the administration and college council continue its budget discussions through the winter.
“There’s all kinds of perturbations of how you can reduce a budget. Our focus is how will that impact our students, our faculty, our staff, our community the least? And that’s what our challenge is,” Turner said.