FAIRFIELD — The economy is coming back, but that means college enrollment is declining, a trend that has left Kennebec Valley Community College among those struggling to balance their budgets.

The college, which employs about 110 full-time faculty and staff members, has told a small percentage of its workers that their jobs could be in jeopardy, President Richard Hopper said Tuesday afternoon.

“My goal is not to lay anybody off at all,” Hopper said.

Still, he said that advance notice was given to “less than a handful” of workers so that they could be better prepared should a budget cuts leave them without employment.

The financial troubles are a sober note underlying a period of heady growth at KVCC.

Hopper said it’s not hard to understand why fewer people are seeking to get into college.

“The economy is doing better,” he said. “People are getting jobs, so they’re less inclined to seek higher education. It doesn’t seem as urgent.”

The trend is exacerbated in Maine, Hopper said, because the state’s population is declining. In Somerset County, where the college is located and from which it draws many of its students, the decline is faster than it is in the state as a whole.

Hopper said the rebounding economy and declining population have created a one-two punch that is difficult to counter.

The 600-acre Harold Alfond Campus was acquired by KVCC in 2012 from the former Good Will-Hinckley residential school, which closed in 2009 but reopened in 2011 as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The acquisition was funded in part by a $10.85 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

The new campus has been centered around the idea of resurrecting what was once a working farm, to be used as a living classroom for students eager to join the state’s burgeoning agricultural movement.

The explosive growth, paid for by private donations, has not affected the larger financial picture for the college, Hopper said.

“This would have happened with the new campus or without it,” he said.

The campus’s physical growth can’t be scaled back to pay for operating expenses, Hopper said, because the expenditures come from completely separate funding sources that can’t be commingled.

“When you’ve been given a gift to build buildings on a new campus, it’s not intended to pay the salaries and benefits of current faculty,” he said. “It just isn’t, it’s not really possible to make those sorts of choices.”

Enrollment woes

When Hopper came on board as college president less than a year ago, enrollment was about 2,400.

Outgoing president Barbara Woodlee expressed hope that the campus expansion would allow enrollment to grow to as much as 4,000 over the next several years.

Instead, enrollment has declined by 100 students, to about 2,300, Hopper said.

KVCC’s tuition is $88 per credit hour for Maine residents.

The campus gets only a quarter to a third of its funding from student tuition, but Hopper said the effect is still dramatic.

“It’s a very important part of our revenue profile,” he said. “We are tuition-dependent. A little dip in enrollment has a big impact.”

KVCC is not alone in facing enrollment declines, said Helen Pelletier, a spokeswoman for the Maine Community College System.

The system teaches about 18,000 students on seven campuses across the state. This year, enrollment was down 2 percent statewide, the first decline in a quarter-century.

Pelletier said the decline wasn’t unexpected, because enrollment at the community college system has been growing for the past decade, an unsustainable trend.

“This is after a 10-year period during which enrollment increased by 83 percent,” she said.

At KVCC, the enrollment boost helped to offset declining or stagnating sources of state and federal funding.

“Enrollment was going up, up, up, and that was very helpful,” Hopper said. “It was possible to do better each year. And suddenly that has stopped.”

Last fall, enrollment at two-year institutions declined 3.1 percent nationally, a drop that came on the heels of another 3.1 percent decline in 2012, and a 1.6 percent decline in 2011, according to a report on college enrollment from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Enrollment at all higher education institutions, including four-year colleges, declined 1.5 percent in 2013.

The declines have been less precipitous in the Northeast, where the total drop was only 1.3 percent over the three-year period, but Maine’s community colleges have been worse off than most of the region.

Last year, Hopper said, the college was worried when many of its enrolled students simply failed to show up. “They apply, get accepted, enroll, register for classes, pay a deposit, and then don’t show up,” he said.

The college contacted those students and asked what had changed their minds.

“The number one answer we were getting was people were working,” he said. “They found work.”

BUDGET SHORTFALL

KVCC is dealing with the cuts by trimming its budget, one component of which was to notify a few faculty members on Feb. 15 that their jobs were at risk.

The college employs about 45 full-time instructors, 65 administrators and staff members, and 25 part-time instructors.

The notification was done as a preliminary measure on the advice of the faculty union, Hopper said, so that no one would be caught flat-footed without a job.

Hopper said he has been meeting personally with every employee who could be affected.

“It doesn’t feel good for the people who get this sort of notification, but I think they can feel confident that we’re working really hard to make sure that this doesn’t happen,” he said.

Hopper said administrators are working to trim the budget without affecting the quality of the education KVCC offers.

“We’re working very hard to maintain the institution as we have and to reorganize in a way that will let us respond to the student demand and the labor market demand,” he said.

In the long term, the college hopes to overcome the large-scale trends by continuing to diversify and upgrade its offerings.

Recent new offerings include sustainable agriculture and culinary arts programs, both of which take advantage of the college’s new campus and current labor market trends.

“That will help to expand enrollment,” he said.

The college also is rolling out a new Family Laboratory and Nature Exploration Center to attract new students to the Alfond Campus.

But for now, there will be uncertainty until a budget plan is put together, which Hopper said will happen before the next fiscal year starts on July 1.

The college is prohibited from presenting an imbalanced budget to the Maine Community College System’s board of directors.

Pelletier said she hasn’t heard much talk to indicate that tuition hikes would be used to close the college system’s budget gaps.

“We have the lowest tuition in New England, and I know that our board feels very strongly that a central part of our mission is to provide access to students,” she said. “The board hasn’t taken up the issue of tuition hikes for this year, but … historically they have worked very hard to keep tuition and fees low, and that will continue to be a major priority.”

Hopper said some of the solution will come from marketing the college so that Maine’s residents are more aware of the opportunities it offers.

He said one new initiative is to reach out to major employers so campus enrollment can be considered for workers who have been laid off recently.

“Since I arrived, I hear over and over that KVCC is the best-kept secret,” he said. “That’s really difficult to hear, because it shouldn’t be a secret and it shouldn’t be kept.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt