An open letter from Lakewood’s Stephen Willson:
An Open Letter to the MCC Board and the Community
Any substantial government capital project needs to pass a two-part, sequential test.
The first part of the test is,
“Has a need been established?”
If and only if the answer to this question is “Yes” should the second question be asked:
“Of all the alternatives, what is the most cost effective way to meet this need?”
MCC hired Wight & Co. to develop capital plans for a $280 million expansion.
The need for this expansion – the first part of the test above – was the projection that enrollment at MCC would grow 3% per year for the next forty years. Before tax dollars were spent to hire Wight & Co., what kind of study was undertaken to justify this 3% growth projection?
The answer is:
I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the college asking them for
“all documentation related to the 3% per year enrollment growth projection that underlies the plans drawn up by Wight & Co.”
For a project of this magnitude, I was expecting to receive a formal demographic study that would have included
- analysis of college enrollment trends, including any special factors that might have led to a one-time jump in enrollment, detail of the age distribution of the student body,
- an examination of population trends in McHenry County,
- population projections for the nation, the state and the county by agencies such as the Census Bureau, and, if most of my students were younger people,
- an examination of the trends in enrollment at area schools, including discussions with area school superintendents.
I did not receive such a document.
I received exactly three pages.
The first page is a six line statement from Wight & Co. stating the MCC Master Plan Steering Committee – NOT Wight & Co. – used “page 3 of the 2011 McHenry County Labor Report” and the enrollment statistics to project enrollment growth.
The second page is MCC’s enrollment history over the last ten years.
The third page is page 3 of the 2011 McHenry County Labor Report – which makes NO projections.
In short, no study was done to justify the projection that enrollment is so likely to grow by 3% per year for each of the next 40 years that a $280 million capital expansion is justified.
The numbers were pulled out of the air.
The college spent hundreds of thousands of dollars asking Wight & Co. for a plan it didn’t need, and then asks the taxpayers for $280 million more without doing its homework.
If the college were a student of mine in a statistics class, I’d give them an “F”.
Still, despite the lack of work by the College, it is possible that the College’s projection is accurate, so I asked myself, “What might the College have found if it had done its homework?”
The first question I asked myself was, “Has McHenry County’s population been growing 3% per year?”
To answer this question, I visited the Census Bureau’s web site and learned that the annual growth in population in McHenry County from 2000 to 2010 was 1.7%, NOT 3%!
Then I said to myself,
“Well, perhaps overall the population hasn’t grown at the rate MCC projects, but young people are MCC’s primary demographic.
“Has the number of young people been growing 3% per year in the last ten years?”
While the Census Bureau does not provide that level of detail by County, it does by state.
The number of young people 18 and under in Illinois FELL by 3.6% between 2000 and 2010.
Not conclusive, but it is highly unlikely that McHenry County so completely bucked the state trend, especially when overall population growth was only 1.7% per year in McHenry County.
Since the Census Bureau has not yet provided detailed age distribution data by County for 2010, I download historical enrollment data for all of the elementary and high schools in the entire county, which took me about 30 minutes.
What does this data show?
It shows that EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL DISTRICT IN THE COUNTY HAS DECLINING ELEMENTARY ENROLLMENT.
In fact, the number of 3rd graders – MCC’s freshmen in ten years – has fallen by 14% from the peak and today is 20% smaller than the number of high school seniors. So we know for a fact that the pool of potential students for MCC will be smaller in ten years than it is now.
Then I said to myself, “Does the Census Bureau project that population growth will increase or decrease?”
The answer is that the Census Bureau projects that here in Illinois the number of 18 to 24 year olds – MCC’s prime demographic – will DECREASE by 6.7% between 2010 and 2020 and decrease 3.3% over the next twenty years.
A 3% per year growth rate would imply an increase of 34% and 80%, respectively, over the next ten and twenty years.
Those are big differences!
I found it hard to believe that McHenry County might buck this trend, so I actually called the Superintendents of Districts 155 and 158, the largest districts in the County, to ask them what they were projecting.
Dr. Hawk of District 155 said they had a demographic study completed just a few months ago, and that the conclusion was that enrollment had plateaued and would decline over the next fifteen years.
I asked her if anyone from MCC had contacted her for information and she said no.
Dr. Burkey of District 158 said they expect high school enrollment to increase by about 500 over the next several years and
then to begin to decline because their elementary enrollment has already started to decline.
He also confirmed that no one from MCC had contacted him for information.
So, we have definitive data showing that the pool of potential students at MCC is highly likely to decrease, not increase, over the next ten to twenty years.
Has MCC itself bucked this trend?
The answer is no, MCC has come nowhere near 3% enrollment growth in the last several years.
In the last seven years, enrollment actually decreased in two years; in only two years did the increase exceed 3%.
In 2010, spring enrollment increased 27%, a one-time jump not likely to be repeated due to the introduction of the Promise Program.
In fact, according to a press release from MCC itself, enrollment actually declined by 4% in the most recent Fall semester versus the same semester in 2010.
Enrollment in Spring 2012 is 5.2% lower than in Spring 2011.
So MCC’s enrollment history does not support the projected enrollment growth, either.
Finally, let’s perform one simple test of reasonableness for the 3% growth projection.
The number of new students currently attending MCC about 33% of the number of high school seniors.
That doesn’t mean one-third of all high school seniors go to MCC because some new students will be older.
But it’s still a good benchmark; over time, there should be a strong correlation between the number of high school seniors and the number of new students at MCC.
If you combine what we know is happening to school enrollment in McHenry County with the 3% growth rate, and in ten years new enrollment would equal 50% of all high school seniors. In twenty years, 75%. In 30 years, 101%. In forty years, 125%.
IF EVERY SINGLE HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR FORESWORE FOUR YEAR COLLEGE AND WORK AND WENT TO MCC FULL-TIME, THERE STILL WOULDN’T BE ENOUGH NEW STUDENTS TO MEET MCC’S PROJECTION.
In short and in conclusion, MCC’s growth projection is not only unsupported and contradicted by all the facts, it is, ultimately, ludicrous because it projects more enrollment growth than even the number of potential students.
It would be the only business in the Universe with more than a 100% market share.
I repeat what I said at the beginning. Any substantial government capital project needs to pass a two-part, sequential test, the first part of which is, “Has a need been established?”
The answer in this case is definitively, “No.”
In fact, the College did so little work and such sloppy work that as a professional researcher for 30+ years, if any employee of mine came to me with this justification for a $280 million capital plan, I would fire them.
This is not a statement I make happily or lightly, nor is it an exaggeration.
The work that preceded hiring Wight & Co. was not merely minimal, it was ludicrous on its face if any common sense had been applied.