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As I’ve watched TSTC West Texas’s enrollment drop like my jaw while I read their reports to the state, I have run across several explanations for the huge enrollment drop. (Click here for background on the enrollment crisis.) For the most part, the college has pointed its finger at the new Returned Value Funding Model over the years, but I’ve run across a couple more, too.  One I just recently heard (from a legislative assistant) but have never seen in writing, even in 2013 reports, hangs the responsibility on the West Texas oil boom. I suppose the oil boom could be lurking in a report somewhere that I haven’t run across, though. The problem with the oil boom explanation is that the drop in annual unduplicated student headcount started back in 2008, well before the boom. Cisco College has a robust technical education program. I’ll have to see how the oil boom has affected that college’s numbers and compare that to TSTC West Texas’s woes. Look for that article down the road. Meanwhile, the other two explanations are documented below:

By far and away, this is the best illustration of using the new funding model as an excuse for reduced enrollment. It is taken from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s “Higher Education Accountability System” website. (Select TSTC West Texas in the drop-down box in the upper left corner.)

TSTC West Texas dropped in enrollment from 2011 to 2012 by 185 students. This change, as well as many others, can be directly tied to our new funding model and our interim operational changes as we shift toward a new way of doing business. With the new funding formula, we are focusing on recruiting prospects who are looking for career changes and ultimate placement into their respective fields. The new model causes a re-evaluation of where and how we recruite students and changes many aspects of how we operate. It will take some time to make these changes and get the message out to all our constituency.

Then there are statements in the media, like this one in the Abilene Reporter-News titled “Most Big Country Colleges’ Enrollment up, Bucking Universities’ Trend,” 2/7/2013:

Julie Cromeens, TSTC spokesperson, said the decline is not a true measure of the goals of the school.

“The Texas statewide mission for TSTC is to be the backbone of the Texas workforce. It’s about getting people jobs; getting them to be skilled workers and putting them in jobs.

“TSTC West Texas continues to streamline our programs to fit the Outcomes-Based Funding Model, which is based on job placement and graduate earnings, not time in training.

Here’s another from the Abilene Reporter-News. Its title would lead one to believe that the new funding model was already in effect. It goes into effect September 2013. Please read “New Outcomes-Based Funding Model in Use at TSTC West Texas,” 9/6/2012:

According to its website, TSTC West Texas had 1,882 students at its campuses in Sweetwater, Abilene, Brownwood and Breckenridge in fall 2008. Fall enrollment was 1,703 in 2009, 1,410 in 2010 and 1,036 in 2011. . . . We completely changed our way of looking at traditional education,” Cromeens said. “We’re not worried of getting them in: we’re focused in getting them out and getting them jobs.”

See an earlier posting on this blog for a discussion of the above article, including the claim that enrollment was up for fall 2012 when, in fact, TSTC West Texas reported to the Co-Board an enrollment of 810 students, a drop of 226 from fall 2011.

Finally, this one is a little different. In this one, the Abilene Reporter-News says TSTC officials claimed the enrollment situation was on purpose! It’s from a story titled “Big Country Community Colleges Keep on Growing,” 1/2/2011:

Officials said in September 2010 that Texas State Technical College remained static on purpose because all campuses are slated for major construction projects. Fall enrollment dropped from 1,326 last year to 1,285 this academic year.

Whoa! Major construction projects and now they’re mothballing buildings?

What readers need to keep in mind here is that all four major TSTC campuses–TSTC West Texas, TSTC Harlingen, TSTC Marshall, and TSTC Waco–are going to be funded by the new funding model beginning with FY 2014 this September, all of them, yet TSTC West Texas is the only one that has lost a catastrophic number of students. That loss began way back in 2008, long before any oil boom and long before the new funding model kicked in.  It is also important to note that funding in the next biennium, 2014-15, is based on colleges’ performance in 2006 and 2007 when the numbers were good, and TSTC West Texas still lost about 9% of its appropriated funding compared to the current, 2012-2013 biennium. The only other TSTC college to lose money via the new method was Waco, which lost about 3.5% of its funding, proportionally a minimal hit compared to TSTC West Texas, which, according to its public pronouncements has been all about preparing for the new model since 2008.

Given the fact that the other three TSTC colleges fared relatively well with the funding model’s first biennial spin, and given that, percentage-wise, the other colleges lost nowhere near the students TSTC West Texas has, I’d say administrators prepared a really nice hole.

The first rule of holes is to stop digging. I think the college’s president, Gail Lawrence, has stopped many, if not all, of the practices that were digging that hole. It remains to be seen if she has done that in time. Layoffs, mothballed buildings, and relatively empty campuses do nothing for a college’s reputation. Ultimately, word-of-mouth is the most powerful medium of all, and it’s always working, whether the college is doing well or not so well.