Jun 11, 2024 - News

Columbia College faces changes amid layoffs, budget deficit

Photo of the front of a building that says "Columbia College"

Columbia College Chicago. Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Getty Images

Columbia College, the private media and art school, is facing questions about its future as leaders have determined the school faces "imminent, serious financial difficulty."

Why it matters: Columbia's enrollment is down 36% from a decade ago, and the decline is expected to continue as the school's dire financial picture has forced them to combine academic departments and consider cutting classes in artistic disciplines for which the school is known.

The big picture: The Board of Trustees voted in 2018 to allow the school to operate with a deficit for five years, but declining enrollment, pandemic tuition freezes and tuition rebates because of a faculty strike prevented the school from reversing the downward trend, Columbia president Kwang‑Wu Kim said last month.

Driving the news: Late last month, the school laid off 70 employees and eliminated 32 vacant positions in an effort to put a dent in the 2024 fiscal year's $38 million budget deficit.

  • The board says cuts will save $15 million.

Catch up quick: Nearly 600 adjunct faculty went on strike last October for 49 days over increased class sizes and fewer classes for faculty to teach.

  • The union and school came to an agreement in December that included increased payment for larger class sizes and a guaranteed 650 courses offered to part-time faculty.
  • Shortly after the strike, Kim announced he would resign July 1.

Between the lines: The 135-year-old school was a draw for many journalism, radio, visual and performing arts students who could learn from active practitioners in their fields rather than professors that had been working in academia for years.

  • Columbia also is considered a good option for Chicago and suburban students who can save on housing by commuting to the South Loop campus.

Yes, but: Chicago applicants went down 20% since last year, the Columbia Chronicle reported.

By the numbers: Columbia enrolled 2,161 freshmen in fall 2013, but only 1,608 in fall 2023, according to the school.

  • In 2022, net tuition revenue fell to about $108 million, from nearly $150 million in 2018.

Zoom in: Part of the school's budget cuts include decreasing the requirement for core classes from 42 to 30 hours, eliminating the graduate and liberal arts schools, reallocating those students under department leadership and cutting dean positions.

What they're saying: "We must take some short-term steps to reflect the lower enrollment trends," Board of Trustees president John Holmes said in a statement. "That growth will be fueled by broadening our appeal to young creatives everywhere and unabashedly expressing our students' talent and drive to employers."

The other side: "There is a lot of uncertainty about how the new structure will affect the overall experience of the full-time faculty (FTF) members," Faculty Senate president Rojhat Avsar tells Axios in an email.

  • "The staff layoffs are of concern to the FTF because some of the eliminated positions are directly student-facing roles (e.g., tutoring, counseling services, etc.) and may impact the student experience directly."

What's next: School officials have placed several majors under review — including film and television, dance, fashion studies and photography — to determine how those courses might look in the future, and whether they'll return at all.

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