PORT ANGELES — Peninsula College is facing a potential 29 percent drop in full-time-equivalent enrollment as the two-year school of higher education prepares for a fall semester of online learning for most students.
It joins other institutions facing similar reductions in student numbers — a metric showing a 29 percent downturn as of Friday compared with last year on the same date — that college President Luke Robins expects to reverse the course of by the time school starts Sept. 28.
The enrollment total of 182 full-time-equivalent (FTE) students — a larger number when actual individuals who take classes are counted — compares with 258 FTE pupils in 2019 and does not include correctional education, Running Start, adult basic education or international students.
“For all colleges everywhere, that predictor is not a very accurate predictor of where we will actually be,” Robins said.
“We think students will wait to the last minute to make a decision.
“My hunch is that we will be down, that most colleges in the system will be down somewhat, particularly because, of course, the coronavirus.
“I think people are waiting to register until they see what the pandemic is like and all those other sorts of things,” Robins continued.
He said enrollment is down for a variety of reasons, not all related to COVID-19.
“Anybody who’s got kids in school is just trying to figure out how to make it all work,” he said.
“In some cases, people have lost their job.”
There are also fewer 18-year-olds making their way through area school districts, Robins said.
“Where do yo see growth in population? It’s not in the age group that would necessarily be our students. It’s retirees.”
The online regimen the school adopted last spring will continue in the fall quarter, with courses taught remotely for all but about 150 students, such as nursing and welding, which Gov. Jay Inslee has deemed essential.
Safety protocols such as social distancing and other mandatory measures will be in place, such as mask wearing throughout the campus in all public places except in private offices.
People must have permission to come onto campus, be processed through a COVID-19 test station and scan a bar code, fill out a form on their smartphone and submit it to the college so they can be tracked for contact tracing if the need arises.
Robins said he is not aware of any students or staff who have contracted the virus.
In-person classes could gradually increase depending on the spread of the virus.
The increase in cases has pushed Clallam County into the high-risk category for residents to contract the highly contagious virus, with more that 75 cases per 100,000 population. Jefferson County has moved into the moderate category.
The school’s Aug. 22 commencement ceremony was moved online after the rise in COVID-19 cases, which have seen a spike among the 19-29 age group.
“All of this is obviously contingent on what happens on the virus and what will be the reopening plan if things get significantly better during the fall quarter,” Robins said.
“We might reassess, allowing for more face-to-face sorts of things to happen.”
Robins is not optimistic the online regimen will change any time soon.
“I’m not placing any bets on that, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Students nationwide have protested being charged full tuition at colleges and universities that, like Peninsula College, have eliminated the in-person vitality of classroom learning and switched to online instruction, according to national news media.
Like other college and university presidents, Robins said Peninsula College tuition will not be lowered, nor was it last spring.
In-state tuition and fees are $4,100, and out-of-state tuition and fees are between $4,500 and $4,900, about one-third of the cost of a public four-year institution, Robins said.
He defended online instruction.
“I take issue with it not being a full educational experience,” he said.
“We are all focused on delivering a high-quality instructional program for our students and doing the best we can to get students ready for transfer, if that’s what they want to do, or get ready for work.”
Students were surveyed about the change to online education.
“We got a lot of really positive feedback about faculty being willing to make allowances for students struggling in the online environment or struggling with family issues and work issues,” Robins said.
At the same time, most students also want to learn in a classroom environment.
“By and large, we did the best we could in the situation, and so did the students,” he said.
“The staff shifted on a dime to working at home, and students did a really remarkable job making that transition and gutting it out.”
As of the beginning of June, the college faced an $870,000 deficit due to falling enrollment.
Ninety-nine classified staff — represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — and exempt staff were furloughed in a move that will extend through the end of the calendar year.
“It is a testament to our classified staff union that it was on board and is on board with the furlough,” Robins said.
Furloughed workers did not work for three days in July and are taking single unpaid days every month through December.
“Everyone is dealing with this,” Robins said.
“As of now, staffing is stable.”
Whether there will be further staff cuts depends on what state lawmakers do in the legislative session that begins in January and the impact of the coronavirus on state revenue, Robins said, hoping the federal government provides more relief funds.
“It’s a moving target,” Robins said.
State agencies have been ordered to prepare for 15 percent cuts in their budgets.
“It’s going to be a tough year and a tough biennium,” Robins said.
“We are at a point where we are thinking through what a 15 percent reduction would look like, and how do we make that up? So that’s an ongoing conversation right now.
“We don’t know for sure what will happen.”
Robins said one area of the student body that has extra hurdles to overcome is the international student program, which normally would have between 115-130 students enrolled but has only a few enrolled so far and a handful who never went home during summer.
He said the program, which has strong ties to schools in Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia, has been hit by a precipitous decline in numbers over the past four years exacerbated by the travel ban and difficulty obtaining visas.
One roadblock, though, was removed soon after it was put in place.
In July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement backed off a rule imposed a week earlier that would have required international students to enroll in at least one class with in-person instruction in the fall term.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].