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Should community colleges cut off lingering students?

Flickr/Charline Tetiyevsky

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.”

Top five colleges – students with 150 or more units
College # of students
Top five colleges – students with 90 or more units
College # of students
EAST LA 3,135
Top five colleges – students who repeated the same PE course  
College # of students
DE ANZA 1,430
Top five colleges – students who repeated the same art course  
College # of students



Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report


Comments are closed for this story.
frenchjr25's picture
Community colleges were never meant to soely be a step to university. CC's are there to educate their communities and increase the educational level among local residents. CC's give communities opportunities they would not normally have. They bring the arts and science into small communities. Cc's also offer educational opportunities to people with disabilities that will never be able to attend universities, whose general education standards are far too strict and extremely limit who has the ability to attend a 4 year school. Leave Community Colleges alone.
David in Fresno's picture
I recently retired after 23 years a CC teacher. The CA Chancellor is addressing the wrong issue. The problem I saw was failure to complete courses and far too many students who were not prepared for college-level work. To address the former students should not be allowed to enroll for more units than they completed with a grade of C or better in the previous semester. Far too many enroll because they get financial aid, not because they have an educational goal in mind. The problem of unprepared students should be addressed by requiring placement tests for all incoming students and prerequisites for all transfer courses. Where I taught the enrollment Counselors usually put students into my classes while also placing them at the same time in English 1A (or something remedial). I never thought this acceptable because the students must be able to write coherent responses to essay questions and to write a 15-20 page reseaarch paper BEFORE they take General Education transfer courses. In any given semester half of my students couldn't write even one paragraph without difficulty, so I "invited" them to drop rather than receive an F (or dropped them when they stopped attending). I usually saw them the next semester despite the fact they hadn't taken any courses to correct their deficiencies! These students aren't profitting from instruction and so, should not be allowed to enroll over and over and over again. They are taking up space. The students the Chancellor is "concerned" about are at least completing courses. So what if they aren't transferring? They are at least contributing. For example, most CC drama programs wouldn't exist if a relatively small number of people in the community couldn't enroll repeatedly for Theater Arts 50A, 50B, 50C, etc. etc. It shows a lack of understanding by the Chancellor of the role of Community Colleges for him/her to "attack" the students mentioned in the article.
David in Fresno's picture
One significant way to address the problem of funding Community Colleges is to reduce the length of the academic year so that it matches that of the CSU system. This would mean 15 week semesters, not the 18 weeks currently offered. Funding would be cut proprotionately for all academic and instructional staff (roughly a 15% pay cut) but not all maintenance folks because the school would still need to have buildings painted, etc. This would also then permit a "third semester" in each calendar year that would be funded by charging tuition equal to the cost of instruction (essentially allowing colleges to charge US residents the same that international students now pay). And because CC faculty have no obligation to conduct research and publish like their CSU counterparts, they should have their teaching loads increased from 15 units per semester to 18 AND be required to be on campus with a teaching assignment five days a week. I know of one man who manipulated his schedule should he could alos have a lucrative law practice and yet a second who is ternured at two different colleges because he too manipulated his teaching schedule.
jcreager's picture
I aggree with frenchjr25. Leave the CC's alone! I have been laid off repeatedly over the past ten years. I don't have the money to pay for the four year colleges or the time to go full time. I have to work to pay bills and debts due to layoffs. I'm working and going to school to aquire my CS degree and Cisco certs to prevent further layoffs (which is not a gaurentee). I am also a veteran of the US Navy. I was using my G.I. Bill benefits until they canceled it at the beginning of my first year. This was due to they're "use it or lose it policy". I was using it and they take it away by puting a 10yr limit on it. Now I depend on the CC to be inexspensive to get my degree. Also on the note of individuals retaking PE classes, I am sure most of them are elderly adults trying to find a way to stay fit. This is to avoid exspensive gym membership fee's which they're retirement can not supplement. Education is very imortant for a country to thrive, we can't let the damn gov mess with it as they already have with other entities.
GrayKnight's picture
". . . students should not be allowed to enroll for more units than they completed with a grade of C or better in the previous semester." This will not work. If a student takes five courses and gets: A, B, D, D, D (passes all but just two with "C" or better) then the next semester is only allowed to take two courses. If both of them are passed with C or better, still cannot take more than two because of the policy, and on, and on, and on. There has to be a way to get out of the vortex after one bad semester.
David in Fresno's picture
GrayKnight is correct, so I offer the following amendment. If, in his scenario, the student completes both classes for which he or she enrolled, I would allow him or her to enroll for three classes. If these were 3 were successfully completed with a C or better, he or she would be allowed to enroll for four, and then five as in the first term. This would get the student back to full time status (usually 12 units or 4 3-unit classes) by the third semester.
Joanne Jacobs's picture
I know (secondhand) of someone who completed a master's degree and immediately started on another so she can maintain student status and postpone repaying loans. At the community college level, are students putting off completion to stay eligible for aid programs or delay loan repayment? I've heard talk but I don't know if there's any substance to it.
frenchjr25's picture
Depends on the program. Some welfare programs require parents to be working or in school. Many parents will stay in school so they can continue to receive benefits. Part of the issue is understanding that in the job market AA's are useless. Employers want BA's. What this all speaks to is a need for a complete reform of our education system. A major problem is that we students are required to complete a host of liberal arts and general education courses. These courses have nothing to do with our career paths, take up our time, and cost a lot of money. I'm in a BA program now but I would have an AA in theatre arts except I have to take a health course and anthropology. Why, I really don't know. CC's serve 2 purposes. One is to get students ready for University. The other is to offer courses to community members in various subjects that might interest them.
Jay Manley's picture
Whatever happened to the concept of "lifelong learning" and "continuing education?" I thought those were among the missions of community colleges. And how about all the citizens who don't have children or grandchildren in the system? For many, these very "suspect" classes are way they get something direct and tangible for their tax dollars. At least in the arts, an area in which I have some direct familiarity, "repeated classes" are never "the same." An orchestra that meets from semester to semester constantly plays new repertoire, with new challenges and continual learning. A theatre student who "repeats" a performance class may perform Shakespeare one semester, a musical play the next, and a contemporary drama the next. Each provides unique learning that cannot be accommodated in a single class. Obviously, students who are failing should not be encouraged with a policy that allows them to continue to fail. And it should be fairly simple to filter out truly frivolous classes. God forbid some of our citizens should be getting too much education in California!

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