CBC tries to fill gap after loss of status

PASCO -- Columbia Basin College, already coping with state budget cuts, also will lose some federal grants at the end of the school year because enrollment of Hispanic students has dropped below the level required for those grants.

The college was classified as a Hispanic Serving Institution in 2001.

The HSI status is bestowed on two-year and four-year colleges where at least 25 percent of students identify themselves as Hispanic.

Designation makes such schools eligible for Title V grants from the federal Department of Education.

Since gaining the HSI designation, CBC landed two grants to improve how it serves Hispanic and low-income students: One in 2004 was for about $1.3 million, and another in 2006 was $2.87 million, college records show.

The first expired last year, the second will expire next summer. Neither can be immediately replaced as the college has lost the necessary status.

The percentage of students identifying as Hispanic at CBC hasn't decreased, however.

The 2001 designation came after CBC reported 26.2 percent of its students were Hispanic. This fall term, 26.9 percent reported themselves as Hispanic, said Martin Valadez, vice president for diversity and outreach at CBC.

What's changed is the way the federal agencies count.

Colleges report their statistics, including total enrollment and gender and ethnic make-up, to the Office of Post-Secondary Education, said Cathy Clement, operations officer at the National Center for Education Statistics. That hasn't changed since 2001.

But in 2006, the Office of Post-Secondary Education began checking numbers reported by schools against a database kept by the statistics center. That database counts only students who are enrolled in enough post-secondary courses to attain full-time student status, Clement said.

That's not fair to community colleges, Valadez said. Colleges such as CBC have an open enrollment policy, and students can come to CBC and take noncollege level classes, for example, to work up to college-level skills in math.

Valadez said this often is true of students who come from low-income, first-generation-in-college backgrounds who didn't have the support to take challenging classes in high school.

Those are exactly the kind of students Title V grants target, according to the federal Higher Education Act.

Under the new accounting method, if a student enrolls in, for example, two college-level courses and one basic skills course, he will not be counted as a full-time college student and, if he's Hispanic, will not count toward the college's HSI status.

Enough of the Hispanic students at CBC are enrolled in basic skills classes that the federal database dropped the college from its HSI roster in February 2008, said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.

That will have consequences at the end of this school year, when the last grant runs out.

The $2.87 million pays for institutional programs, meaning it was used to improve the way the college operates rather than simply pay for instructors' salaries, Valadez said.

The college used the money to set up a service center, for example. It also paid for research on how to better deliver remedial math instruction, Valadez said.

The college hopes to avoid reductions in staffing because the loss of the grant, he said.

"These efforts have been institutionalized," he said.

That means the pilot programs initially financed by the grant are being paid for fully or in part from the college's general budget now.

Some of the salaries of service center staff are paid half from the federal grant, half from state-funded budgets, Valadez said. They might be paid from only operating budgets after next summer, he said.

"We are looking at the transition now," he said.

But that transition will be painful as the state budget cuts force colleges to trim.

Usually, the college already would have submitted an application to get a new grant after the first one runs out.

But CBC can't apply for Title V money while its Hispanic enrollment is listed as below 25 percent. That means the money to help Hispanic and other low-income students is at least a year away, assuming CBC regains its HSI status next fall, as Valadez insists it will.

"We have expanded early outreach efforts," he said. "We now start talking to students as early as sixth grade."

Valadez said he hopes that and other programs geared specifically at recruiting and retaining Hispanic students will boost their numbers by next fall and allow the college to re-apply for Title V grants.

That money wouldn't come until 2012, however.

The change also affects Washington State University Tri-Cities. The campus gets many of its students as transfers from CBC, said James Pratt, vice chancellor for academic affairs. "About half of our transfer students are from CBC," he said.

Fewer Hispanic students at one campus mean fewer at the other, further skewing their representation in colleges here.

"Looking at how many Hispanics live in the Columbia Valley; we are not representative of the population we serve," Pratt said.

Valadez partially blames the federal accounting method.

"When they went to the new system they didn't consider our mission," he said.