Gov. Jerry Brown wants to change a long-criticized method of funding community colleges based on the number of students in attendance on a single day near the beginning of the semester.
It is only one of several proposals relating to community colleges in his budget, including calling for increasing fees from $26 to $36 a unit, and reducing the community college budget by some $400 million.
But it may be the first time that a governor has taken aim at the basic funding mechanism for community colleges.
According to state law, every college has a "Census Day" – typically the first Monday of the fourth week of a semester – during which instructors take attendance and submit those figures to the state. The state then provides funding based on the number of students in attendance on that day. After that, it matters not how many students drop out or don't complete the class for any number of reasons.
For years, a variety of researchers and policy makers have pointed out that this system does not provide a financial incentive to colleges to keep students from dropping out. As a report [PDF] from Cal State Sacramento's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy noted, "current finance policy places disproportionate emphasis on the front end of a student’s college pathway: we are buying college enrollments but not college completion."
Currently, community college attendance accounting allows colleges to receive credit apportionment funding for student attendance after only 20 percent of a course is completed. However, 16 percent of students on average do not finish credit courses they have enrolled in. This policy provides an incentive for colleges to take advantage of the system to maximize funding which also distorts the overall (full-time student) workload completed by the colleges. In effect, colleges are being funded for a higher level of students than actually attend courses.
Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy organization, enthusiastically endorsed the proposed change. "This is very exciting," Siqueiros told California Watch. "We are very hopeful that community colleges will have a very clear charge to improve rates of success."
She said according to a study conducted by her organization, only three in 10 students get certificates, associate degrees or transfer to another colleges after six years of community college study, "and the numbers are worse for students of color.".
If implemented, Brown's proposal could put significant additional pressures on colleges to figure out how to keep students in class. However, it provides few details on how it would be implemented, and whether its goal is to save the state money or to raise community college completion completion rates, or both.
Colleges that are already working hard to keep students from dropping out could reasonably argue that they need extra resources to focus more attention on potential community college dropouts.
And Brown's budget is not offering them more resources. Rather, it is expecting them to do more with less. By community college projections, Brown's budget would require community colleges to serve some 350,000 of its current students without any funding from the state.
Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, has been a principal advocate for changing the "Census Day" approach to funding – but not as a budget-cutting device.
One risk is that colleges serving student populations who come unprepared for a college education may end up being disproportionately penalized for lower course-completion rates, compared to colleges in more affluent areas. "I am all for having incentives to help students to succeed," Shulock told California Watch. "But if you don't carefully design it, and just say 'we will cut funding based on course completion rates,' that is exactly what will happen."
Meanwhile, Jack Scott, chancellor of California Community Colleges, sounded an alarm about the proposed budget cuts and fee increases, focusing less on whether students complete their classes but on the tens thousands he said wouldn't even make it into class in the first place.
“These are difficult times for California and there’s no way to avoid the pain of budget cuts. However, if our community colleges sustain reductions of this magnitude, we anticipate up to 350,000 students will be turned away next year."