Pima Community College’s enrollment has fallen so low that record-high tuition hikes are on the horizon unless the school starts making major spending cuts, its employees heard Wednesday.

Layoffs, campus closings, program elimination, reduced hours and fewer employee benefits all were laid out as potential cost-cutting measures as PCC comes to grips with its inability so far to reverse declining demand for its classes.

“The status quo is the path to doom,” Governing Board member Scott Stewart said as PCC finance staff showed how enrollment has dropped to a 25-year low, roughly akin today to what it was in 1991.

That’s left PCC with far more building space than it needs. It has six campuses — two of them added since 1991 — but its student body now is small enough to fit into four, officials said.

PCC has taken pains to avoid layoffs, but that can’t continue, finance boss David Bea said.

“Some difficult decisions are upon us,” he said. “We need to recognize our new reality.”

Recent state changes to community college spending limits will force further cuts on PCC when they take full effect in three years, so the school needs to start planning how to blunt the impact, he said. The college also needs to find money to modernize its operations, he added.

Bea presented three budget scenarios for the board’s consideration:

  • Forgo major cuts for now and make one big $15 million cut in 2020. This would require a $7 per unit tuition increase next school year — “the largest in the college’s history,” Bea said, noting the previous high was a $5 increase. A full-time student taking 30 units a year would pay an extra $210.
  • Reduce spending by $5 million a year in each of the next three years and borrow money to modernize facilities. PCC would start to identify under-performing programs and phase them out, and would reduce infrastructure and staffing.
  • Reduce spending by $10 million in each of the next three years and plow the savings into a spending plan to “revolutionize the college.” This option calls for “significant” reductions in infrastructure and staffing, including eliminating “at least one location.”

Wednesday’s special board meeting launched what will be a monthslong process leading up to the setting of next school year’s budget in June.

PCC plans in the new year to hold information sessions and seek feedback from inside and outside the college before moving ahead with budget planning.

The college has secured free help from a University of Arizona expert to guide its decision-making efforts.

Anthony U. Martinez, a former professor of business strategy in California who now lives in Tucson and lectures at the UA, has volunteered to help the college with priority-setting. He said he got involved after PCC contacted the UA’s Eller College of Management for help with strategic planning.

Martinez, in an interview after the board meeting, said PCC’s current crisis could lead to a brighter future if handled well.

“I see a lot of value in this process,” he said of the budget planning effort. “A time of crisis is a good time to evaluate and look at what’s most important.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd