Exploring Opportunities During Difficult Budgetary Times: A Conversation

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Celia Esposito-Noy & Denise Noldon

This article is a change from our normal format as two colleagues, Celia Esposito-Noy, Interim President, Cosumnes River College and Denise Noldon, Vice President, Student Development and Enrollment Management at Folsom Lake College in the Los Rios Community College District, discuss challenges in budgeting and student service adjustments in these tight economic times.


Like most student development educators, we like to have time to reflect on how we deal with challenges we face and to collaborate with our colleagues about how to approach these challenges. In light of the current economic situation, we thought our conversation should present our reflections and strategies for coping with what is sure to be one of the biggest budgetary challenges we will face in our current positions.

Pennies, nickels, and dimes

As community college leaders, we are all too familiar with the stratified funding structure that is California’s higher education system- UC gets the most, CSU a little less, and Community College, very little. Because we have rarely had the opportunity to truly assess if more funding alone would result in greater student success, we frequently attribute poor student success rates to insufficient funding. But when we’ve surveyed students at our college about what they value in their educational experience, what truly made a difference, they consistently reference the personal relationships they developed with faculty and staff, how they felt supported, and the sense that someone cared about them. The quality of personal relationships with students is not dependent on funding or any current crisis that we might be facing as a state but rather the quality and consistency of the interactions that make for a positive and transformative relationship.

Thinking about change and innovation and finding the joy in uncertainty is challenging for all of us, especially during difficult and uncertain economic times. While we cannot control the uncertainty, as much as we try, we can control how we handle ourselves during uncertain times. Consider your frame of reference, how you see the issues, and how your perspective impacts your ability to see beyond the confusion and keeps you from seeing opportunities for change. Uncertainty is the ideal condition for innovative leadership to thrive and for innovative leaders to inspire others.

Our profession thrives on our ability to be collaborative and to always keep students at the center of our decision-making. This is generally easy to do when other pressing concerns are not part of the equation. While students are our preeminent concern, we have to also be concerned about how our colleagues and co-workers are doing because so many of them have concerns that affect them as well.

One of the things I have learned from the current economic crisis is that it is much easier to be creative and innovative when we have resources to throw at our challenges. Now is the time when this skill set is important to cultivate and exercise as we are facing unprecedented challenges. Our biggest challenge is how to make the resources we have do more as we know that more students will grace our campuses looking for education and training that community colleges have historically provided when the economy is on the downturn.

When we are facing a budget crisis, we can use the opportunity to look at more effective ways to deliver our services. For example, counseling sessions can be done in small groups of “like” students. A group of first-time freshman can be advised using a small group format rather than one-on-one for their initial meeting. The three contacts required for EOPS students does not dictate that every contact must be one-on-one or only with a counselor. Why not utilize peers during one or more of the contact sessions to talk with students about how they have handled academic difficulties, life issues, and the importance of following the Student Education Plan? And, if there is a need to reduce hours or services, why not use the opportunity to explain to students how best to access what services will be available and the best times to utilize those services. For those of us who are often frustrated by the significant number of continuing students who are waiting to see a counselor during the first week of the semester, why not advise students of the non-peak times that they should schedule appointments? Or, send letters to continuing students letting them know that the first two weeks of March have been allocated for appointments and drop-in counseling just for them so that they won’t have to wait to see a counselor in August. Providing students with the tools they need to be successful, when we believe they need them is an effective way of demonstrating for students how to best use services.

We also must make sure to focus on those students who are not availing themselves to support services. Our students are challenged by so many competing responsibilities that they often make decisions that are not in their best interest. Many work more hours than what we would recommend given their unit loads. Others do not engage in discovering what they want to do with their education and take courses that are not preparing them for transfer or to meet the degree or certificate requirements. The impact of the lack of informed decision making results in students needing additional time toward completion of educational objectives or stopping out altogether.

I think we need to make sure that we are offering the type of training that will enhance our students’ ability to be competitive in the tight labor market. This means that we are more firmly committed to working with our business and community partners to ensure that our curriculum is relevant and responsive to what they are looking for in employees. We also want to make sure that we assist our students in preparing for the job search through developing the soft skill sets that will allow them to put their best selves forward.

There are a number of strategies that will bode us well if we are able to implement some tried and true practices. First, it is important that we stay the course on the Basic Skills Initiative. Our creativity and innovation with this effort should yield much better retention and persistence rates. It is our focus on assisting students to successfully matriculate from basic skills to college-level coursework that will fully equip them to complete their educational goals and to be competitive in the job market.

Any crisis we face also offers us opportunities. As a group of vice presidents in a large district, I think we can leverage some influence on decisions by ensuring that the value of what we contribute to the enterprise is known and acknowledged. We need to make sure that we are working collaboratively our colleagues in instruction and administrative services to make decisions that are the best we can in this perilous economic moment. We should commit to stay focused on our students and to providing the best possible programs and services we can despite having to do so with limited resources.

Another strategy is to focus on our assessment plans and use the data we collect to inform our work. The challenge we face is that we do not lose our momentum in terms of operating in an outcome-based, data informed environment. Our ability to continue down this path will enable us to make informed decisions that promote positive outcomes for students. We should be focused on what works and using our limited resources to support these efforts.

What I hope we gain from this experience is that we continue to engage in good practice and make sure that we have the public trust that our product is worth investing in and that we honor their trust by delivering quality programs and services. The current situation will pass but like any good student, we should be able to apply the lessons learned so that we come out of it with renewed commitment to our community and our missions.

There are many ways we can use times of crisis to advance our cause, to strengthen our commitment to students and to our mission, and to demonstrate to students our resilience as an organization, as educators, and as role models. Let’s use this time now to demonstrate our ability to be creative and to provide exceptional leadership in support of an incredibly important mission.

About the Authors

Celia Esposito-Noy
Interim President
Cosumnes River College, Sacramento, California

Celia Esposito-Noy currently serves as the Interim President at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. She has been the Vice President of Student Services at the college for four years and has worked for the Los Rios District for nine years. She has worked in higher education for nearly 20 years.

Denise Noldon
Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Management
Folsom Lake College, Folsom, California

Denise Noldon is currently serving as the Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Management at Folsom Lake College. She has also served as the Dean of Counseling and EOPS Counselor/Coordinator in the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District. She has worked in various segments of higher education for over 30 years.