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Community Colleges Are Fighting for a Bigger Share of State Funds

Proposal to allot bond money to two-year campuses on the basis of enrollment triggers conflict with Cal State and UC.

September 03, 2000|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's three higher education systems--University of California, Cal State University and the community colleges--usually maintain peace in the name of family unity.

But recently the community colleges have been failing to keep up appearances.

In fact, they have been behaving a little like a drunken relative at dinner--embarrassing the family and startling the guests by revealing some long-simmering quarrels.

At issue is how state money is divided up among the three systems.

Community college advocates have long groused that the two-year colleges, which enroll more than 60% of the state's public college students, have gotten short shrift relative to Cal State and UC.

This summer, the complaints spilled into the open when state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) drafted a resolution to divert a greater share of state bond money to the community colleges at the expense of Cal State and UC.

The proposal set off a minor political tempest that some observers say may bode future troubles.

All three systems face steep increases in demand in coming years, so competition for funds has heightened.

Community colleges have traditionally received less funding per student than the other segments--about $4,200 per year compared with $10,200 for Cal State and $15,000 for UC. They also receive a smaller per-student share of construction dollars from voter-approved bonds.

In the past, "there has been this attitude . . . that UC obviously came first--that we are all proud of it and that it's untouchable," said Mark Drummond, chancellor of community colleges in Los Angeles, the state's largest community college district.

Now, he said, "it's finally dawning on the higher education community that, for better or worse, the community colleges serve [most] of the college students in California."

Currently, all state bond funds for higher education construction are divided evenly. Proceeds from the most recent bond issue, approved by voters in 1998, total about $210 million a year for each system.

Polanco's resolution sought to divide bond money on the basis of enrollment--giving the community colleges a clear advantage.

Officials with universities were not pleased.

UC, for example, stood to lose about 80% of its current state bond apportionment.

"UC was apoplectic," said one state official.

"It wasn't pleasant," acknowledged Stephen Arditty, UC assistant vice president and director of state governmental relations. The three segments share common goals, he said, "so when this kind of conflict breaks out, it's unfortunate."

Arditty said UC's larger apportionment is justified by the universities' important role in training graduate students and conducting research.

"Classrooms are much cheaper to construct than research labs," he said.

Cal State officials reacted to the proposal similarly. The proposed resolution "stunned a lot of policy makers," said Wess Larson, assistant director of the government office for Cal State.

But if university backers saw the effort as a betrayal, community college advocates steadfastly defended it.

Students who transfer from community colleges to universities are presumed to have received an education equal to that of university students at the same stage, and so should get more funding, they argue.

"Look at the number of young people going to junior colleges," said Bill Mabie, Polanco's chief aide. "The question is, is the money following them?"

In the end, the proposal was shelved until a working group convenes to come up with a new formula to divide future funds, perhaps by delving into the touchy issue of how much the first two years of college instruction really costs.

That could open up additional questions about funding--and disputes. "This isn't going to go away," said Drummond.

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