On June 30th, FRCC’s Brighton Campus is going to permanently close its doors. The announcement was made in March, with the administration saying that “Our lease on the center expires [this June] and our most recent center director recently resigned- which makes this a natural time to review the future of the center.” After analyzing the situation, the administration estimated that closing the center would save the college about $500,000 annually, and they don’t think that the students lost during the pandemic are going to come back.
“It’s definitely a shame,” said Jeff Tilma, operations coordinator at the Brighton Center. “It provides access to the community. There’s not a lot of opportunities here in Brighton for people to take classes. Obviously, we have the remote element, so they can be met that way.” However, he said, “With our enrollment as low as it was, I wasn’t shocked.”
Anna Fajardo, Coordinator for Testing and Welcome center at the Brighton Center, felt differently. “We were shocked. We were very, very shocked,” Fajardo said. “[We had thought] ‘well it’s COVID, we’ll have some leeway,’ but I guess not.” As for whether or not the decision was made too soon, Fajardo said, “I don’t know if they jumped the gun on [the closure], but we weren’t showing the numbers we needed to.”
Asked about the $500,000 the college would save by closing the campus, she asked an important question: “Is it worth it to this community?”
To put in perspective how much $500,000 is, Tricia Johnson, Vice President at FRCC’s Westminster Campus, put it in terms of a pay raise. “$500,000 a year would enable us to do about a 1% pay increase to every employee across the college,” Johnson said, “and these are really challenging times for our employees as the cost of living in our service area has gone up dramatically in the last couple of years, so that’s why we liken it to what it enables us to do with a pay increase so we can try to keep our good employees here at the college.”
As for whether or not the administration was too early on the decision to close the center, Dr. Johnson doesn’t believe so, “In terms of waiting it out, I think it’s important to say that that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last two years. In the first year [2020-2021], we recognized that nothing was normal that year. We were regularly having to quarantine, and [ask] ‘could we do classes in person?’ So we said, ‘ok we know that that year is not something we can base a decision solely on’ and so we thought: ‘ok, 2021-2022, we’ll be back in person.” … “We waited an entire additional year to see: ‘are we able to bring that enrollment back up?’, and in the first year, 2020-2021, we were at 41 FTE, so we knew ‘ok that’s not a great number’, but we knew it was pandemic impacted. This year, when we could bring all of our classes back in person, we only have 33 FTE.”
That may only be a decline of eight students, but because the number was so low, to begin with, that actually represents a drop of over 20 percent. Prior to the pandemic, the center had 90 FTE students enrolled, meaning that there was nearly a 60 percent decrease over just two years. It also demonstrates to the administration that the Brighton Center was not only not recovering, but it was actually continuing to decline.
That is compared to the rest of FRCC, which did not see a significant drop in enrollment across the same period – or at least, not beyond the drop that had already been taking place over the last ten years. That’s another important consideration: FRCC is not in the same position today as it was in 2009 when the Brighton Center opened. “When you look at the numbers for [all of] our campuses, we’ve been seeing some pretty steep declines [in enrollment] over the last ten years as a college,” Johnson said. “We’re averaging about a 6.5% drop [in enrollment per semester] across all our campuses.”
With that in mind, it may not be financially responsible for FRCC to spend money to maintain a campus with such low enrollment. Although it’s important to note that all other FRCC campuses are able to cover their costs, Johnson stressed that there are no considerations whatsoever about closing any other locations.
So it’s worth asking if the Brighton Center can’t financially sustain itself, and the rest of FRCC isn’t in a position to spare the cash to maintain the center, would it be possible to use federal stimulus money to sustain Brighton Center? After all, much of the decline is COVID-related, isn’t it? The short answer: No. “There are really specific rules on what we’re allowed to do with each of the [stimulus packages],” Johnson said. “We had to be able to 100 percent show that they were used in response to COVID”…“when I think about where the savings are, the savings are in the rent that we pay for that building – it’s very hard to say that the rent was impacted by COVID – it’s in the operations of it, the utilities, and of course the employees that are at the center. It wasn’t really a case that I could make that we could use [stimulus money] because [it’s not] directly related to COVID.”
It also doesn’t help that enrollment was declining even before COVID, “Our best year [at Brighton], we were at about 110 full-time students,” Johnson said. “Even before the pandemic impacted our enrollment, our FTE students had dropped down to 90, almost a 20 percent drop.”
Why, though, did the Brighton Center have such low enrollment? Everyone seems to have their ideas. Fajardo cited COVID, power transitions, and low levels of awareness and outreach. “I think, with COVID, we lost a lot of students,” she said. “There also wasn’t a lot of knowledge that we were even here. I live in the Brighton area, and every time I talk to someone they’re like: ‘Oh! There’s a campus in Brighton?’ But we’ve been at this building since 2009, and at the old judicial building since 1998…, and so I think our outreach was not as we had it before, and then [the director] quit, and then we got John [the most recent director], and then COVID hit…so I think it was a lot of things.”
Dr. Johnson suspected it might have something to do with the location, “That’s what we’ve been grappling with for years, is ‘why hasn’t it boomed?’ When you look at where the growth is within Brighton, that’s not where the [campus] is, so I do think that’s part of it.” However, she also expressed uncertainty about the true cause. “I wish I knew the answer,” Johnson said. “I wish I knew it was just because of outreach – because I know that the staff there, especially Cynthia Garcia and Anna Fajardo, they’ve been doing good outreach work, and I look at the College Now team, they connect really well will 27J, and the schools. So I think that, while they’re absolutely was transition in terms of the director at the Brighton Center, the folks who were right at the front working with students were continuing to do a lot of that outreach, so I’m not exactly sure what the challenge was there.”
As for whether or not FRCC will leave the Brighton area altogether, Dr. Johnson says they will not. “One of the things we are looking at … is the phlebotomy program,” she said. “It’s a one-semester program where students come in, prepare, and then get out there and go to work after that amount of time,”…“and we’ve had full classes [for that program], which is great! And not having the center doesn’t mean we can’t have that anymore. So we are actually in the midst of looking at what other partners within the community we might be able to rent a room [from] to offer that training, to keep phlebotomy training within the Brighton community. So I do envision us continuing to be in the community – it would just look different. So we’re looking at how we can do more partnerships like that to keep the services in the community.”
While no plans to re-open another center in Brighton exist today, FRCC has come back from far worse declines in enrollment before. So maybe one day, another campus will be opened in Brighton, but until then, the community will have to make do with FRCC’s other campuses, and the programs it runs in partnership with other organizations in the area.