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Community Colleges to Feel Crunch

A report says two-year schools will feel the crash of an impending enrollment wave if the state doesn't make adequate preparations.

June 16, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Citing the thousands of California students who were shut out of community colleges last year because of budget-forced course and staffing cuts, a report issued Tuesday predicted worse times ahead for the state's two-year colleges without significant funding and policy changes.

As the population grows and enrollment demand at the state's colleges and universities increases, community colleges will become more important for California's economy, concludes the report by the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

But the report, "Ensuring Access With Quality to California's Community Colleges," warned that the so-called Tidal Wave II -- the expected enrollment surge of children of baby boomers -- means the state should find room over the next six years for about 700,000 more students in higher education, much of that at the 109 community colleges.

The current proposed state budget for next year calls for a 3% enrollment growth at community colleges. Yet that barely offsets the impact of two years of cuts, according to the report. Last fall, the community college system estimated that enrollment dropped by 146,000 students to 1,632,000 students. Enrollment dropped during previous state recessions as well, the report noted.

The report says that as enrollment in the University of California and California State University systems is tightened, the bulk of Tidal Wave II students will seek spots in community colleges, where fees are lower and admission easier.

Patrick Callan, president of the national center that produced the 118-page document, urged that planners build long-term education policies around demographic shifts rather than reacting to budgetary currents.

"We take [higher education policy] one year at a time, with whatever resources we have, but the consequences of taking it one year at time are just the pattern we've gotten ourselves into: In good years you're going to provide adequate educational opportunity and in bad years you're not," Callan said. "My best advice to parents is to be sure you're smart enough to have your kids in a year where they don't graduate during a recession; that might be more important than their grades."

But Steve Boilard, director of the higher education section of the legislative analyst's office, said enrollment projections change year to year, making it difficult to predict any long-term effects of budget problems.

"If you look over a longer period, you see there's been this very steady trend upward in terms of enrollment and participation rates in higher education," Boilard said. "One year downward doesn't mean we've created this inevitable decline in higher ed participation."

The report was commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation as a precursor to the founding earlier this year of Campaign for College Opportunity. That group includes labor and ethnic advocacy organizations and the California Business Roundtable.

The college opportunity group's executive director, Abdi Soltani, said it would use the report to identify legislative proposals to help the two-year colleges. The report offered few specific policy suggestions.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Mark Drummond said Tuesday that the study reiterates what he and other state officials have been saying for several years: Two-year colleges are as crucial as ever to the future of the state.

The looming boom in students who will seek higher education needs to be addressed, according to Drummond. "The light at the end of the tunnel is a train, and it's getting ever closer and faster."

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