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What's at stake as community colleges face budget cuts?

Public Policy Institute of California Fee increase at California community colleges over time

A new report by the Public Policy Institute of California examines how nearly $1.5 billion in budget cuts in recent years has limited access to the state’s community college system.

I asked California Watch’s higher education reporter, Erica Perez, to help break down what the changes mean for the 2.4 million students who attend community colleges. Below are excerpts of our conversation.

California community colleges have experienced a cut of nearly $1.5 billion between 2007-08 and 2011-12.

The Public Policy Institute of California report states: “Student enrollment rates in California’s community colleges have dropped to a 20-year low in the wake of unprecedented cuts in state funding. Colleges have reduced staff, cut courses, and increased class sizes – all of which have led to declines in student access.”

According to a recent California Watch report, fees have risen 130 percent in the past five years, and students are unable to get into the classes they need.

Public Policy Institute of California Changes in student enrollment at California community colleges over time

Community college enrollment rates in California are at an all-time low.

Community colleges have cut classes, instructors and other resources, meaning fewer students are able to enroll.

Despite budget cuts, more community college students are transferring to four-year colleges.

“The increases are modest (only a percentage or two), but they suggest that budget cuts have not hurt student transfer rates,” the report says.

The mission of community colleges has changed.

The traditional mission of community colleges is providing access to state residents who have a high school diploma or have shown an ability to benefit from education. The reality now is not everyone who wants to take a class at a community college can.

Are community colleges “rationing” education?

Perez explained that some community college leaders describe it this way: “If we only have a limited amount of spots, then we should give it to the people who benefit the most.”

The community college mission is increasingly focused on students who want to transfer to four-year colleges or who want to get associate degrees and certificates as opposed to those who want to take classes for enrichment or who don’t have as firm an academic plan.

Who are the changes hurting most? Who is getting shut out?

Several types of students are getting pushed out: those looking to enrich themselves by taking an aerobics or music class, first-time students, those who are fresh out of high school and those trying to return later in life to get an education.

Community colleges have fewer resources to help students navigate the system.

As resources have been cut, community colleges have less capacity to help students who have not established an academic plan. Community colleges now have fewer counselors and less flexibility to spend one-on-one time helping students through the system.

Lauren Rabaino/California Watch

Consolidating community colleges could help cut costs, but that entails a complicated political process.

A recent California Watch investigation found that community colleges could save millions of dollars if they got rid of duplicative administrative costs. But doing so requires a political process that needs to be approved by the local boards of trustees – a move that could put some of those board members out of a job. Even after rounds of approval, it would take two years to lay off administrators, which means the cost savings would not be immediate.

This California Watch infographic explains the costs and complications. 

Wasn’t Proposition 30 supposed to fix budget problems for community colleges?

Prop. 30 provided additional funding, but it didn’t make up for the budget shortfall. Some districts were worried that they’d face financial ruin if Prop. 30 didn’t pass. For other districts in better shape, Prop. 30 helped but didn’t make up the gap in funding.

What are other solutions?

Several studies show community colleges are missing out on millions of dollars of federal funding. Students eligible for a waiver of the $46-per-unit fee at community colleges could in theory qualify for federal financial aid. By changing these requirements, they could bring in federal dollars and spend them at community colleges, which would mean that instead of the state paying, the federal government would pay.

More students are attending for-profit colleges.

Although difficult to track, some students who can’t get into community colleges go to for-profit colleges, which are adept at attracting them via online marketing. Despite much higher tuition, students usually are eligible for federal financial aid, loans and grants. However, once they leave the school, they are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

How should California’s community colleges handle future enrollment? Share your views below:

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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