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Cutbacks Sting Community College Students

At havens of affordable education, classes and hopes fall victim to the state budget crisis.

March 17, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong, Akilah Johnson and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

Growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, Edwin Echegoyen was expert at turning Lego blocks into elaborate buildings, copying the medieval castle pictured on the box. His dream, even as a boy, was to be an architect.

But after high school, Echegoyen, the 19-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants, found the prospect of a four-year-college both intimidating and expensive. Instead, he enrolled in Santa Monica College's architecture program, hoping to earn a two-year associate's degree as a first step.

Last week, he got bad news: His program is one of 10 being cut by college administrators, who say the state's budget crisis and the poor economy leave them little choice.

"They tell us to go to school to be educated and then they cut off the funds," Echegoyen said. "What's up with that? Education is supposed to be a way out."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Community college cuts -- An article in Monday's section A quoted Mary Spangler, president of Los Angeles City College, as saying that if further cuts are made to the school's budget, it would have to eliminate office administration, earth science, architecture and possibly foreign language programs. Spangler explained, however, that there are no immediate plans to cut the programs. Such a proposal would have to be reviewed by the college faculty before Spangler could consider eliminating them.

California's 108 community colleges, long a gateway to higher education for young adults from poor families or for older students looking for career changes, are scaling back classes and warning of layoffs, even as demand for degrees steeply rises.

Santa Monica is among the first to scrap entire programs. But the signs of trouble are everywhere: Compton Community College officials sent notices last week to all its full-time faculty members, warning that they might be laid off. Hundreds of classes, as well as weekend and summer sessions, are being axed immediately or soon at Pasadena City College, L.A. City College, Orange County's Santa Ana College and Palm Desert's College of the Desert.

"If we have to take any further cuts, office administration, earth science, architecture" and maybe foreign language programs will have to go, said Mary Spangler, president of L.A. City College.

Schools say they are reluctantly bracing for reductions in the money they receive from Sacramento. Because of a shortfall in tax revenues, the Davis administration asked for $288 million in immediate cuts to the community college system. Last week, legislators passed a less severe $161-million cut, but schools say that still leaves them short of what they need for classes and instructors.

Next fiscal year looks even worse. The governor's budget proposes a 6.2% reduction -- $404 million -- and counts on enrollment of fewer students. In contrast, his budget provides for enrollment increases for California State University and University of California.

Moreover, although the community college system would remain among the nation's most affordable, Davis is proposing to double class fees, to $24 a unit. His administration predicts a 5.7% drop in enrollment as a result.

The cutbacks and fee hikes anger community college advocates, thousands of whom plan to protest today in Sacramento.

"The last thing we should be doing is targeting the community colleges, which take care of the same people who are being hurt in all other aspects of the economy," said Scott Lay, director of state budget issues and a lobbyist for the Community College League of California. "It's an abandonment of the concept of fairness and equal access to education that California has always stood for."

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said the governor intends to "preserve the core classroom instruction as much as possible" and noted that he has worked hard to make financial aid available to the neediest students.

But "when you have higher ed representing nearly 14% of the state budget, it unfortunately is going to share some of the pain," McLean said. "This is a year in which everyone is somewhat unhappy."

Even before the Davis administration proposed its budget, community college officials say, they were strapped for funds and hard-pressed to accommodate a boom in college-age students. They were already increasing class sizes and reducing offerings.

Now, they say, there is no more fat to cut.

The experience of Santa Monica College foreshadows many of the hard choices and lost opportunities educators say await campuses throughout California.

Facing $15 million in state-mandated cuts for the next school year, the trustees decided Monday to eliminate 10 programs serving 1,900 students: architecture, fashion design and merchandising, geographic information systems, interior architectural design, office information systems, public safety, recreation, respiratory therapy, tourism/hospitality and transportation technology. In addition, 13 administrative positions were cut.

"This saves us $2 million," said a college spokesman, Bruce Smith. "We still have to find another $13 million. It's only the first shot to see what we can do in a horrible situation."

The cuts, aimed at programs with the lowest enrollments or completion rates, came after $5 million in trims at the beginning of the semester. Trustees, whose decisions won't be final until May, are still looking for ways to salvage the programs, and the school is offering counseling to help affected students transfer their credits elsewhere.

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