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Capitol Journal: Chipping away at community colleges

As fees rise and courses are cut, students suffer. Without a tax extension, the losses could be much greater.

February 02, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — California's community colleges always have been among the best bargains in America. But too often these days that's like saying land's cheap on Mars.

Price doesn't matter much if the product isn't available.

Like a lot of institutions that rely on tax dollars, California's community college system has been hit hard. And that means students suffer.

They're getting less for more.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to increase student fees by $10 per unit, from $26 to $36. That would raise $110 million to partly offset a $400-million state funding cut Brown advocates for community colleges, leaving them with $3.6 billion in state money, a 10% trim.

The governor essentially wants to shift that $400 million to K-12 schools. They're more popular with the public, and their biggest union — the California Teachers Assn. — is arguably the most powerful lobby in Sacramento.

Brown's political strategy is simple: He's protecting K-12 schools from more whacks for now. But he's warning that K-12 cuts will resume if voters don't approve his proposed extension of temporary tax hikes in June. The teachers union presumably will be highly motivated to help bankroll his ballot campaign if the Legislature allows the special election.

The community colleges aren't complaining loudly about the proposed fee increase. "It may be a little sharp, but it doesn't hurt too badly," says Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

The higher fees still would be the lowest in the nation, by far, totaling $1,080 annually for a student on track for a two-year associate of arts degree. Moreover, the fees are waived for students judged to be financially needy, about half the enrollment.

Neither are the colleges really screaming — grumbling maybe — about their virtually certain funding cut. It's tough all over. For years, the state has been in a deep hole, the latest calculation being $25 billion. It must climb out and everyone has to give. The colleges get that.

But they're lobbying for restoration of some of the severed funding if Brown's tax plan passes.

It's the cumulative effect of several years of slashing that has taken its toll. "We've been cut and cut and cut," Scott says. "It's been death by many cuts."

By law, the 112 colleges must admit anyone who is at least 18 and has a high school diploma. But that doesn't mean the student is guaranteed a desired class.

The colleges have been paring instructors, filling classrooms to the brim and canceling courses.

"You can't make major cuts without reducing staff," Scott says. "You can't save much money by not sweeping the floor as often."

The colleges turned away 140,000 students during the last school year. It's estimated twice that many are being shut out of classes this year. Brown's funding cuts would deny courses for 350,000 more, according to longtime community colleges lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

Many college classes have long waiting lists, virtually unheard of 20 years ago. Some examples from last fall: 6,200 wait-listed seats at Cypress College, nearly 13,000 at Bakersfield College, 80,000 in the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento County.

"The big story is the number of first-time students — the recent high school graduates — who are being squeezed out," says Paul Steenhausen, community college expert for the Legislative Analyst's Office. "I liken it to an unfortunate game of musical chairs where there's not enough chairs for participants and when the music stops, it's the new guy every time who winds up without a seat."

Aggravating this student deprivation, the number of counselors has been halved. It's the counselor who's supposed to guide a student through the complex maze of academia, advising which courses to take to, for example, earn a degree in two years and transfer to either of the state university systems.

Fewer classes, fewer counselors — it's becoming much tougher to obtain a degree in two years, even for the most ambitious.

"When I go on a campus and refer to it as a 'two-year college,' " Steenhausen says, "students snicker."

My most reliable source on all this is my granddaughter, Georgia Henry, 19, who's on target to graduate in June from Sacramento City College after running a two-year obstacle course. Like many students, she opted for a local community college to save money and build up her grades to gain admission to the University of California.

She says students at Sac City are basically on their own.

"You have to be smart about what class you take and double-check everything because there's nobody making sure you're on the right track," she says. "That's a little bit different than I thought it would be.

"I kind of found my way through by making all the mistakes possible and deciding I had to fix it, and I did."

That included taking practically a full load last summer.

"I only got into all my classes because I learned my way around the system."

In all, there are 2.76 million California community college students. Besides university transfer aspirants, they include returning war vets and laid-off workers seeking retraining and single welfare moms learning job skills.

College leaders worry about the fate of Brown's proposed tax extension.

"If it passes, we can quickly breathe a sigh of relief," says Daniel LaVista, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. "If it fails, Armageddon looks us in the eye.

"I'm not one who rises to melodrama, but I can tell you this would be a different organization."

Community colleges have always been the bedrock of quality public education in California, an indispensable building block of economic growth. But that bedrock has been eroding.

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