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Little progress at Harford Community College [Editorial]

The Aegis

When Dianna Phillips took over as president of Harford Community College in the summer of 2016, she pledged to try to reverse the fiscal rut the college had fallen into of having to increase student tuition year after year in order to keep its budget balanced.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that we have a mindful, comprehensive look at the complete picture for tuition," Phillips told The Aegis in an August 2016 interview.

She also cautioned, however, that HCC, as with other community colleges, did not have total control over its finances, as more than 50 percent of its revenue comes from Harford County government and the state. At the time of that interview, tuition and fees made up 43 percent of the college’s revenue.

"Forty-three percent is about as high as I ever want to go, but we also have to have the support of the state and the county," Phillips said, also opining: "As affordable as we are, every time we raise tuition, we're raising tuition on the backs of our students."

Hmm. Regular readers to this section of The Aegis have seen similar words before.

The budget Phillips inherited for her first year from her predecessor, Dennis Golladay, was balanced with an $8 per credit hour increase in tuition amid a forecast for another drop in enrollment.

The new president did not reverse that trend in her first budget that was presented to the HCC trustees a year ago this month, but she did moderate it somewhat. For 2017-18, Phillips proposed a tuition increase of $3 per credit hour for in-county students (higher for out-of-county and out-of-state). The increase was later pared back to $2.48, after Gov. Larry Hogan offered one-time supplemental funding to all colleges that held tuition increases to 2 percent or lower.

At the same time, Phillips pledged to continue addressing enrollment declines. She said she and her staff were working not only to attract new students, but to retain the ones already on campus. “I do believe we are yielding results,” she told the trustees in this past February.

Results or not, however, the proposed $51.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2019 that Phillips sent to the trustees last week calls for a $3.52 per credit hour tuition increase for in-county students, about 2.7 percent, to $130 per credit hour.

Total spending would increase by about 4.7 percent, much of it to account for proposed employee salary increases of 4 percent and projected employee health care costs of 2 percent, according to the budget documents.

Phillips also told the trustees “we are slowing the enrollment decline,” citing a projected increase next fiscal year of 2 percent in for-credit hours and a 3 percent in non-credit hours.

The newest HCC budget runs the risk of falling into the same death spiral that confounded the previous college administration. Thurs far, there seems to be little effort on the part of Phillips, her staff and the majority of the trustees to make some tough choices on where money should or shouldn’t be spent.

In her year and four months leading HCC, Phillips has wasted no time in assuming the trappings of a college president, such as holding an investiture ceremony earlier this year and renovating space for her office and other staff offices, plus buying new furnishings — not particularly good moves in the current fiscal climate at HCC. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed on campus.

Meanwhile, the students’ backs appear likely to become a little more bowed again in 2018-19.

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