Until the close of Wyoming’s legislative session in March, funding for the state’s seven community colleges — located in Cheyenne, Casper, Sheridan, Riverton, Rock Springs, Powell and Torrington — was primarily based on enrollment numbers more than 10 years old.
“Basically, at the beginning of every two-year cycle, we go back to [allocated funding based on] the enrollment from 2004–05,” says Matt Petry, deputy director and CFO for the Wyoming Community College Commission. “Then we ask for the additional funding [if enrollment exceeds those numbers]. But there’s no guarantee that the colleges will get it.”
Petry estimates that Wyoming community colleges received an average of 70 percent of requested funds each biennium, but instability was the biggest challenge. “It’s difficult [for community colleges] to make any real plans to take on long-term initiatives, because they don’t know whether that money will be there in the future,” he says.
For nearly three years, the state’s community colleges have been lobbying lawmakers to change the way funding is allocated. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to do just that. Starting in fiscal year 2019, the state will allocate funding based on current enrollment numbers. “That funding will be there for the next four years,” Petry says.
That means colleges can count on a set dollar amount each year, based on recent enrollment. There is, however, some risk with this reward: If enrollment climbs over the four-year period, the colleges will “have to live with the funding they receive,” Petry says.
We asked Petry what the new funding formula means for Wyoming’s community colleges and what other states can learn from the system’s legislative success. Here’s what he had to say:
How did this legislation get passed?
We went through a number of legislative hearings starting in June and ending in October, where the legislature was trying to craft a better solution. The [appropriations] committee itself never really came to an agreement on a bill, but one of the members took a lot of the ideas that were discussed over the summer and crafted them into a bill that he sponsored himself. That bill made it through the legislature very successfully — it was really not opposed at all — and became law in the early part of March.
Who helped get the bill passed?
The community colleges in Wyoming are overseen by boards of trustees, [and] there’s a local association that represents those trustees, essentially a lobbyist. She worked very diligently this last session to push for the bill. The colleges did, as well.
What resonated with legislators that got them to make this change now?
First of all, the notion of us having to come back every two years and ask for additional funding was confusing to some legislators, particularly new legislators. It was [also] confusing to say you’re funding us at 2004–05 enrollment levels. I think some legislators viewed that as being unfair to the colleges, and they recognize the colleges could not work on any long-term initiatives because they just were uncertain about their future funding.
What can other community colleges learn from Wyoming’s legislative success?
Each state is going to differ quite a bit. Wyoming funds its educational system extremely well —about 60 percent of funding comes from the state.
From a personal perspective, I think it’s important to try to keep the funding calculations — how we arrive at adjustments in funding and how we distribute the money among the colleges, depending on their performance relative to the other colleges in the system — as simple as we can so that they can be explained to policy makers without a great deal of difficulty. That’s something we’ve tried to do, and I think we’ve been successful at that.