A proposal to cut off access to community college students who linger too long – loading up their transcripts with gym classes, poor grades and far more units than they need to transfer or graduate – has merit and should be explored, the system's chancellor says.
A report [PDF] from the state legislative analyst last week recommended giving first-time students a higher priority for class registration, capping the number of taxpayer-subsidized units that students can take and limiting the number of times students can repeat certain courses on the state’s dime – moves that could save an estimated $235 million.
“I think what they’ve brought forth has merit, a lot of the ideas we have moved toward implementing, and we would certainly consider these ideas,” said Jack Scott, chancellor of the 112-college system.
The state’s community colleges have often been viewed as offering everything to everybody at a low price – currently $26 per unit. But Scott said he has emphasized in his speeches that in an era of dwindling state aid, the colleges should focus more sharply on transfer education, career technical education and basic skills.
The proposals from the legislative analyst would help do that by directing state resources away from recreational students and those who aren’t making academic progress at a time when first-time college students are being turned away.
A September 2010 report [PDF] to the board of governors by Vice Chancellor of Technology, Research, and Information Systems Patrick Perry found that the system enrolled about 133,000 fewer first-time college students in 2009-10 than in the previous year – a decline that the report attributed to an 8 percent budget cut and the accompanying decrease in course offerings.
“In light of the huge mismatch between demand for classes and supply of classes we just thought this was important to examine now,” said Paul Steenhausen, fiscal and policy analyst for the legislative analyst’s office.
Some of the colleges’ policies allow recreational students to take classes while first-time students are shut out.
For example, the law currently does not limit the number of state-subsidized community college units a student can take. As a result, thousands of students have amassed far more units than necessary to transfer, earn an associate’s degree or get basic job skills.
In 2009-10, the system provided state-subsidized courses to nearly 120,000 students who had 90 or more units. More than 9,000 of these students had accumulated 150 or more units – the equivalent of five years of full-time college.
De Anza College in Cupertino had 297 students with 150 units or more – the highest number of any college in the system. Santa Ana College in Orange County had 3,660 students with 90 or more units – the highest figure in that category, as these charts show.
The legislative analyst’s office proposed limiting the number of state-subsidized courses to 100 units per student. Those who want more classes could pay up to the full cost of instruction, which varies by college but is currently $191 per unit on average statewide.
The 100-unit cap would allow for the 60 units required for degree or transfer, plus a wide margin for any remedial education requirements, basic skills or enrichment, Steenhausen said.
Scott said he could picture such a cap but only if it came with wiggle room. For example, he would not want to deny state support for a student who took 70 units at a community college, went on to get a bachelor’s degree in English and decided years later she wanted to become a nurse. The nursing program would take 60 or more units and would put the student over the 100-unit cap.
“So in this case I think what we need to do is set a general rule and then have some means by which special cases could be considered,” Scott said.
However, Scott expressed enthusiasm about a recommendation to give students with excessive units a lower priority for class registration.
Colleges have broad discretion as to who gets priority for early registration. A recent Chancellor's Office survey of 76 colleges found that nearly 70 percent give priority to continuing students – those who enrolled in the previous term. Fewer than one-third of the colleges give priority to first-time community college students.
The survey did not name colleges, but it also indicated that 42 percent give registration priority to student athletes, 21 percent give priority to international students, who pay tuition, and 13 percent give priority to college staff.
The report proposed giving first priority instead to continuing students who have gone through assessment, orientation and counseling, and second priority to new students who have gone through these steps.
Scott liked the idea of prioritizing registration.
“What I do feel strongly about is that their suggestion that in some ways people who have earned as many as 100 units at the community college ought to be placed at the end of the line – I think that makes good sense,” he said.
The report also recommended that the colleges limit state funding for repeats of physical education and recreation classes, forcing students who want to take these classes more than once to pay up to full price instead.
In 2009-10, about 52,000 students repeated the exact physical education course that they had already completed in a prior term. For fine arts classes with an activity section, that figure was about 20,000 students. (See charts below.)
"We acknowledge ... that these classes can be of value to residents and students, but there are other priorities, particularly today, that we think trump some of the recreational courses," Steenhausen said.
Scott said the colleges have taken initial steps toward limiting course repetition and are interested in pursuing further limitations.
“I really would have to ... look very carefully at each course and what it means about course repetition, but we’re open to studying that issue and limiting the number of times a person could repeat a course,” he said.
Charging full-freight for community college classes would likely stir controversy in some areas. The Santa Barbara City College trustees faced community outrage when they voted in February 2010 to start charging fees for 20 recreational classes [PDF], such as "BBQs and more" and "Salute to Sushi," the Daily Sound reported.
Four candidates for trustee positions at the college made the issue part of their campaigns, saying the college had ignored the community's concerns.
The legislative analyst's recommendations – all of which would require legislative action – come as the colleges face a proposed $400 million cut under Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget. Brown’s plan includes a $10 per-unit fee increase that would generate about $110 million, leaving the colleges with a $290 million gap.
Given those realities, Scott said he is open to suggestions for saving money and preserving the core mission.
“We don’t have any glee about this, I can tell you for sure, we do it only out of necessity," Scott said. "If the state says we no longer want to provide you with the money that we did before, then we have to say we can no longer offer the full range of service that we once did.”