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Still unsure of how stimulus funding will affect state colleges, Ridgewater plans for cuts during next school year

WILLMAR -- Current programs will still be available when Ridgewater College students begin registering for fall classes next month, but the school's budget will be stretched tight over the coming year.

Rising enrollment and cuts in state funding are expected to contribute to budget constraints at the college's Willmar and Hutchinson campuses.

"It is going to be a situation where we're trying to do more with less," college president Douglas Allen said this week. "I don't see any way around that."

The has college already ab-sorbed a $443,000 budget cut in December because of a projected state budget shortfall. The cut was about 2.73 percent of its state allotment for this school year. Other schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system sustained similar budget reductions.

The Legislature hasn't set the state budget for the next two years yet, and it's not clear how federal economic stimulus funding will be distributed, Allen said.

Budget cuts are expected because the state projects a deficit of more than $4.5 billion over the next two years.

Ridgewater's preliminary plans for the next school year include planning for cuts of 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent. The exact amount of the college's state allotment for next year won't be known before May. That could be later if the Legislature goes into special session.

Budget decisions will be made with an eye to how they affect student success and student retention, Allen said.

"Any conversations we might have about programs would be premature," he said. "We really don't know. ... Our first goal is to try and save as many jobs as we can."

If the college did decide to cut back on a program, it would take a year to implement such a change, and students in the program would be allowed to complete it, he said.

Enrollment at MnSCU's two-year schools increased 4.8 percent statewide and 2.2 percent at Ridgewater this spring. A MnSCU news release attributed the increase to the economy and to laid-off workers brushing up their skills or training for new careers.

Enrollment went up first in the Twin Cities area, but it could continue to increase across the state, Allen said. "I think there will be some people who decide kinda late that they're going to go to school," he added.

Enrollment uncertainty is likely to make this year's registration planning a bit more difficult, he added.

"We're trying to maintain the core of what we're going to do," he said. Administrators will be watching registration and class sizes very closely to keep the schedule as efficient as possible. Full-time faculty positions are under contract for the next year already, but the college will have some budget flexibility with its part-time faculty.

"We're trying to tell everybody here that we have to continue to look forward," Allen said, and the college is still developing plans to build on current programs or to establish new ones.

"I remain an optimist," Allen said. "We're really trying to be upbeat and look for ways we can grow."