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Colleges See Influx of Cash--and Challenges

Education: Bigger budgets offer the battered system the chance for a rebound. But the good times may not last, while enrollment is expected to jump.

August 19, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a mound of new money awaiting California community colleges this school year, many campuses have fresh leadership and the public appears more willing to part with tax dollars for education.

As classes begin this week, however, at least two sticky questions face college officials and students: Will California's long-awaited economic upswing last long enough to erase years of budget cuts and the ensuing enrollment drops? And how are the recession-weakened colleges going to prepare for a coming influx of students not seen since the baby boom?

"I'm more optimistic this year about the potential" for a long-term improvement in community college fortunes, said Jack Sterk, faculty president at Valley College in Van Nuys. But one or two years of fattened budgets, he and others said, will not restore a battered system.

As for the half a million students expected to knock on the door of the state's higher education system in the next 10 years--the vast majority going to community colleges--some experts say the state is unprepared.

"It isn't that California has a bad plan to deal with this. We have no plan," said Patrick Callan, executive director of the San Jose-based California Higher Education Policy Center.

Despite a host of major concerns, however, 1996 has been a banner year for the state's 106 community colleges--at least when compared with most of the 1990s.

The good news began in March, when voters decisively approved a $3-billion school and college construction bond measure, $1 billion of which was dedicated to higher education.

The Los Angeles Community College District, the largest in the nation with 100,000 students, will receive nearly $22 million from that pot to help fund desperately needed construction projects at its nine aging campuses.

Even more important than the funds, some observers say, was the message the vote seemed to convey: that taxpayers are becoming more willing to repair a decaying education system. The largest bond measure in state history, Proposition 203 sailed through 62% to 38%.

Then in July, the Legislature passed and Gov. Pete Wilson signed what Sterk called the "best budget in years" for higher eduction.

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The budget earmarked $3.1 billion for community colleges, $200 million more than they received last year and possibly the largest one-year increase for the system ever, said Gus Guichard, the state's vice chancellor for the California Community College system.

About $92 million of that is dedicated in one way or another to accommodating more students through more classroom space, teachers and courses. Many community colleges had to turn away students in recent years because they had laid off staff or canceled classes to meet shrinking budgets. The $92 million aims to reverse that trend.

College of the Canyons in booming Santa Clarita will use many of its new state dollars to begin a weekend college. The 25 Saturday classes, which were quickly organized after the budget was passed, will include courses ranging from "Exploring the Internet" to "United States History."

The new budget would allow College of the Canyons' 6,000-student enrollment to increase by 13%. The growth funds are especially prized, said college spokeswoman Sue Bozman, because in some recent years the school had to turn away nearly half of its applicants.

While some schools, including College of the Canyons, are emerging from the recession in relatively good fiscal shape, others are staring at books filled with red ink.

The budget at Pierce College in Woodland Hills leaped from $20 million last year to $22 million. But the school also rang up a $1.2-million deficit during the 1995-1996 school year. New president E. Bing Inocencio said his task this year is not to erase the debt but to simply keep it from growing.

Added Inocencio, who just left New York City Technical College to take the Pierce post: "I didn't come 3,000 miles for an easy job."

Inocencio is not likely to be disappointed--budgetary concerns are only the beginning at Pierce. Enrollment at the 14,500-student school has been flat or declining, and there has been an ongoing series of leadership crises.

In recent years, the state has paid for most community colleges to increase enrollments, but budget constraints have often capped that growth, sometimes holding it to as little as 1%. The enrollment cap for most schools has been raised considerably for most districts this year; the Los Angeles district has been funded to grow as much as 10.1%.

But with extra money comes an odd challenge--luring students back to college.

Because they could not afford extra students, most schools did what College of the Canyons did and turned away would-be students. Now, schools must meet their new enrollment caps to win their full share of state funding. If not, they could lose some of that money to other schools.

The trick now will be letting students know that, for the first time in years, there will be enough "Introduction to Literature" classes to meet the demand.

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