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Cuts Cited as Students Drop Out

Community college officials estimate that last year's shortage of classes forced 90,000 to abandon their education plans.

September 10, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Class cutbacks at community colleges around the state last year prompted an estimated 90,000 students to either drop out or avoid enrolling in the two-year schools, according to a report released Tuesday.

Officials said that pattern could continue this year as fee increases and possible further class reductions kick in at the state's 108 community colleges.

The report from the California Community Colleges chancellor's office was its first statewide assessment of enrollment losses last year at the two-year schools, many of which slashed courses and squeezed more students into the classes that remained. Those cost-saving moves, along with plans to freeze enrollment next year in the California State University and University of California systems, result from the state's budget deficit.

Community college students face "an enormous threat to access," said Patrick C. Perry, a vice chancellor with the community college system and author of the "Access Lost" report.

Perry said enrollment dropped to 1.69 million in California's community colleges during the last spring, down nearly 40,000 from a year earlier.

Based on population trends and the continuous growth in the state's community colleges from 1995 to 2002, however, Perry estimated that an additional 50,000 students who ordinarily would have enrolled for classes stayed away due to the class cutbacks.

According to Perry's report, the state's community colleges offered 164,597 classes in the spring term, down 4.8% from a year earlier. Class sizes reached 28.4 students per class, up from less than 27.1 a year earlier, and up from 25.5 students per class four years earlier.

"Courses are full, and there are long waiting lists" to try to get into many classes, he said.

Higher education officials said the decline in students attending the two-year schools could continue this year as a result of an increase in community college fees from $11 a unit to $18 a unit beginning this fall term. But they said that a potentially bigger barrier to enrollment is the possibility that this winter, for the second year in a row, the state's budget problems could bring further midyear spending cutbacks. Those, in turn, could lead to the elimination of more classes.

Perry's report was reviewed at a Sacramento study session concerning the state's higher education enrollment. Organized by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, the meeting also was attended by officials from state government and the Cal State and UC systems.

The response to Perry's report was gloomy. "No matter what we do

Enrollment at the Cal State and UC campuses -- the state's two public university systems, which together educate more than 600,000 students -- continued to grow over the last year. Both systems, however, have sharply curbed midyear admissions for the current school year, and they have been directed by the Legislature to freeze enrollment levels in the 2004-05 school year, despite the bulging numbers of Californians reaching college age. Representatives of both systems said they still are evaluating ways to do that, including possible new restrictions on out-of-state students and measures to cut the amount of time it takes to graduate.

Many officials speculated that the universities' enrollment caps will prod students academically eligible for UC or Cal State campuses to enroll in community colleges instead, aggravating the squeeze at the two-year schools, particularly for disadvantaged students. In past periods of job losses, displaced workers also have flocked to community colleges in hopes of training for new careers.

Pirikana Johnson, president of the community college systems student senate and a student at Compton College, said the community college system was designed to be an educational ladder, but "what we're forcing most of our students to do is to just go out into the world and pray that that the ladder will come back down to the ground level."

Kate Clark, president of the academic senate for the state's community college system, said the UC- and CSU-eligible students who come to community colleges tend to be savvier about getting into the classes they need. Instead of being discouraged by waiting lists, they keep coming back and often squeeze into the course. "But those who do not have that experience in college and ... who don't understand the system, don't come back," she said.

Last spring's statewide decline in community college enrollment mirrors the early 1990s, when enrollment in the two-year schools dropped by 195,000 students amid a similar wave of class reductions.

The recent enrollment dip, Perry said, was reflected among both new students and those returning to college after dropping out.

Much of the decline also came among students 25 and older, and among students taking evening classes or those studying part time.

Perry also found a significant drop in the number of high school students and others 17 and younger taking community college classes as part of concurrent enrollment programs. He said he did not include those declines among the young students in the estimated overall loss of 90,000 students, however. Many of the students, who were 17 and younger, were enrolled in ordinary high school physical education classes that also were providing community college credit, a controversial practice that many two-year schools have dropped because of state concerns that it improperly boosted college funding.

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