Short-term enrollment declines overshadow an otherwise high-growth decade for Austin Community College. Now college officials want to plan for the next two decades of anticipated growth.

ACC's student body has increased by 38 percent in the past 10 years, said Neil Vickers, vice president of budget and finance. The college particularly benefited from a national trend of students who returned to school or enrolled during the recent recession, he said.

"That wasn't a sustainable growth rate," Vickers said.

Sure enough, enrollment has dropped 3.9 percent from fall 2012 to fall 2013 and 3.4 percent from spring 2013 to this semester. The recent decline has not deterred Vickers and other college officials who are making long-term plans in anticipation of the next enrollment spike.

"We don't know when we're going to start growing again, but we do know Austin is growing—and growing quite well—which means a pipeline for the future students of this community college is building," he said.

Future investment

Work on the first phase of ACC's Highland Mall renovation project is expected to be complete this fall. The college could seek voter approval for bond money to pay for the next phase of the project, a $152.8 million renovation that would convert roughly 400,000–500,000 square feet of the mall into the ACC Highland Campus, Vickers said.

"The bond, whatever amount it may be, is critical to the college in order to reposition ourselves for the coming decades to serve this growing community," he said.

The proposed $500 million bond, which could go before ACC district voters in November—pending board approval—would also invest more money at new campuses in Elgin and Hays County. Both facilities opened this school year to bring the total number of ACC campuses to 11—including Highland. If approved as recommended, the bond could also allocate $70 million toward the first phase of a 12th campus in Leander, where ACC already owns property near the Capital Metro train station. An additional $8.3 million would be set aside to ease overcrowding at the Cypress Creek Campus in Cedar Park. In November board members agreed to extend bus service to the campus to help provide alternative means of transportation for students.

Another $33.4 million in bond money would potentially go toward expansions at ACC's Round Rock campus, which was constructed in 2010. Pflugerville, despite having an ACC learning center, is not part of the college's taxing district, although grass-roots efforts to have the city annexed have gained momentum in

recent years.

Efforts to expand ACC's footprint have drawn concerns from some ACC staffers. Full-Time Faculty Senate representatives on the bond advisory committee voted against the committee's overall recommendation.

"At this time, we're not in favor of building more campuses and acquiring new land," said Terry Thomas, Full-Time Faculty Senate president. "We want to be cautious and take care of the campuses we have already."

Thomas in January asked board members if ACC is on the path toward becoming "the 7-Eleven of community colleges—a campus on every neighborhood corner." She cautions that if ACC continues to allocate resources too broadly, student success will eventually suffer.

"What is the point of diminishing return?" she said. "We're looking at that right now."

ACC's geographically dispersed service area requires the college to have multiple campuses to effectively serve all communities, Vickers said. The challenge is ensuring the college's resources are proportionally dispersed among the 11 campuses, he said.

"Clearly we're not trying to rein in—though it's a balance," Vickers said. "I think that's why, relatively speaking, it might look like we're spread thin. There's always challenges with growing."

While no two Texas community college districts are exactly alike, high-growth urban districts in the state have faced more challenges in recent years, said Steven Johnson, Texas Association of Community Colleges vice president of public affairs. Texas community college enrollment is expected to double by 2050, he said, making long-term planning all the more essential.

"I think the concern is, over time as state enrollment doubles, will the state [Legislature] be able to double its appropriation the next 20–30 years?" Johnson said.

Funding investment

The state funded more than 60 percent of community college operations in the mid-1980s, Johnson said. Now state money accounts for less than 30 percent, he said.

As a result, property taxes have been used to offset the budget imbalance, Thomas said. Austin's rapid growth has helped ACC maintain the lowest taxing rate among Texas urban community college districts. On the other hand, no other big-city community college district in Texas has higher tuition rates than ACC, according to TACC data.

ACC officials declared a hiring freeze in July 2012. Full-time faculty positions can be replaced with proper approval, although ACC administrators last November proposed limiting adjunct faculty hours in an attempt to avoid paying full-time health care costs.

The proposal drew criticism from faculty members and board members who debated exactly how much health care coverage the college should provide adjunct faculty—and where that money should come from.

"I will argue during budget [discussions] in support of adjunct," said Allan Kaplan, a 20-year ACC board member, during a January board meeting.

Trustee John-Michael Cortez said in March that there is not a huge appetite among board members to increase tuition rates, and he is opposed to some board members' suggestions that ACC increase its tax rate to accommodate potentially expanded health care coverage.

Both Cortez and the Full-Time Faculty Senate have instead publicly supported hiring more full-time faculty rather than relying so heavily on adjuncts. There are more than double the number of adjunct faculty members compared with full-timers—1,340 to 543—according to fall 2013 figures. Many adjuncts also assist in ACC tutoring labs, said Richard Cutler, Adjunct Faculty Association president.

"It's about the money—that's the way the administrators view adjuncts," he said. "As long as there is a greater supply of adjuncts than demand for them, the school will get the best people they can for the least amount of money," said Cutler, who acknowledged that adjunct faculty should do better to present a solution rather than simply state the problem.

Adjunct faculty are promoted to fill half of all full-time vacancies, said Vickers, who estimated in January that it would cost up to $1.2 million to fund increased adjunct faculty health care coverage.

"If in fact we're going to start making contributions to these benefits, we need to have a way to be thoughtful about that expense so we can plan for it," Vickers said. "That's where the discussion needs to go—not about limiting hours or limiting benefits."

Vickers said the board would need to decide before July's budget deadline whether adjunct faculty should be allowed to cobble together part-time hours toward reaching full-time status—a practice not allowed at many other state community colleges.

"Any point in the year some [adjunct faculty member] might hit that threshold, then next month I have to start paying for benefits I didn't have in the budget," Vickers said.