Helping Community Colleges Plan for an Uncertain Future

Community colleges in Mississippi find themselves in unchartered territory as they plan and budget for the 2020-2021 academic year—and beyond. Everything from state budget cuts to uncertain student enrollment to health safety needs in the COVID-19 era pose serious obstacles to short- and long-term decision-making.

Within a fast-changing environment, how might technology help college administrators anticipate the unexpected? A $9,800 grant from the Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF) to the Mississippi Community College Foundation (MCCF) aims to find out. The grant will be used to pair three two-year colleges—Coahoma, Itawamba, and Jones College—with BKD, a national accounting and advisory firm. Using financial modeling software co-developed with PFM, BKD will help each institution explore future scenarios that could impact their revenue, expenses, educational programming, and infrastructure needs. The WHEF funds will cover half the costs of the scenario planning, with the colleges contributing the remainder.

MCCF Executive Director Dr. Ronnie Nettles knows all too well the challenges that higher education leaders face in a time of crisis. During the 2008 financial collapse, Nettles, then President of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, navigated five state budget cuts in just one year. The pandemic and related economic tailspin present today’s leaders with an even more complex set of circumstances to overcome.

“Everything’s completely fluid now,” says Nettles, who hopes that results from the grant will merit expanding the model.

For its part, WHEF seeks to strengthen the ability of community colleges to respond to student needs at a time of sweeping change. “You have people who wouldn’t have access to higher education if it wasn’t for community colleges,” says WHEF Program Officer Shanell Watson. “You have to make them as strong as they can be so they can serve students who are most vulnerable.”

Later this month, participating colleges will provide BKD with baseline data from their audited financial statements over the last three years. Each will then explore possible scenarios. While the colleges plan to return to in-person classes this fall, what are the implications should they need to transition to a hybrid model, with some students living on campus and others taking courses online? What if fewer students require meals and housing? And how should colleges proceed when it comes to planned infrastructure projects, like the construction of dorms?

And there are other variables to consider as community colleges face state budget cuts and grapple with how to allocate funding made available through the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The federal funds must be expended by December 30, 2020. 

“Typically, forecasting is done by plugging numbers into a spreadsheet,” Watson explains. “The BKD software allows users to pivot back and forth between ideas and assumptions and scenarios in real-time.”

“I think it’s really exciting for the colleges,” says Deborah Gilbert, MCCF Policy Director. The typical spreadsheet model is cumbersome and can lead to errors, she adds, whereas the BKD software allows decision-makers to see the impact of a course of action instantaneously. The tool also creates charts and graphs to facilitate analysis. “It’ll be a good tool for colleges to use in going to their board to say why they made a particular decision,” says Gilbert.

While there is plenty of cause for concern in the current environment, Nettles points out that enrollment in community colleges typically goes up during a recession as students look to reduce education costs overall. Time will tell if the schools attract more students. Until then, three local colleges hope to be better prepared—with the help of technology—no matter what the outcome.

Posted by Courtney Lange at 9:33 AM