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Rural community colleges face distinct challenges

Fading dreams

A state mandate to focus on two-year students rather than 'lifelong learners' threatens the campuses' valued role in the community, along with their financial health. Mendocino College is a prime example.

November 02, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Mendocino College student Melanie Douglas drives 75 minutes each way with her 3-year-old son, Noah, to take classes. The child care center is facing possible reductions.
Mendocino College student Melanie Douglas drives 75 minutes each way with… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

UKIAH, Calif. — On a recent evening at the Mendocino College Center for the Visual & Performing Arts, a cast of 35 belted out boisterous voice exercises before running through a dress rehearsal of "Inherit the Wind."

About half are community members taking the production course for personal enrichment — not pursuing degrees or planning to transfer to four-year theater programs. Some are veteran actors, who elevate the learning environment.

Met with a rave review in Ukiah's daily newspaper, the production speaks volumes about how central this school is to the region's cultural life and community spirit.

FULL COVERAGE: California Community Colleges

Yet changes to the core mission of California's community colleges threaten that role. State efforts to ease overcrowding and help colleges adapt to budget cuts are backfiring in rural districts already burdened by vast territories, withered economies, high poverty rates and dwindling populations.

Rather than serving "lifelong learners," the state's 112 colleges have been directed to focus on students seeking to acquire such basic skills as English, transfer to four-year schools or earn associate degrees or certificates.

To that end, upcoming restrictions will limit the number of times students can repeat classes in such programs as arts and athletics. While theater arts professor and director Reid Edelman said he will allow maxed-out community members to audit, they will no longer count toward enrollment goals — or bring in state resources for the college — leaving the department's future vulnerable.

"What the state wants is for students to come here for two years and then transfer," Edelman said. "It's just throwing away this whole gem. We don't have enough students just among the transfer students to cast the plays."

In addition to depriving the broader community of activities that are rare or nonexistent beyond campus borders, the altered priorities threaten the economic health of rural colleges.

Urban schools can backfill eliminated courses in arts or athletics by adding sections in core subject areas such as history. But that's not the case in rural areas with lighter demand, where colleges are struggling to meet enrollment goals on which the state bases its funding.

Decreased funding, in turn, is sure to prompt further cuts — potentially threatening the educational offerings the state is seeking to protect.

"Rural areas don't have the population to dip into," said Mendocino College interim President Roe Darnell, who warned that the pending rules limiting course repetition will deal a particularly sharp blow.

"Our class sizes will plummet," Darnell said. "That's what all the small schools are trying to prepare for."

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The Mendocino-Lake Community College District was formed in 1972 to serve most of Mendocino County and about half of Lake County. The college opened on the Ukiah fairgrounds, adding centers in Willits to the north and Lakeport to the east. A permanent campus followed on 127 acres of oak-dotted ranch land.

Today, about 5,000 students attend each year, many of them low-income. The district estimates that one-quarter of households with children under 18 within its boundaries are headed by single mothers, compared with one-fifth of such households statewide.

Reductions in state funding have had an impact. The annual college budget is 9% smaller than it was five years ago, and positions of departed faculty, staff and administrators have been left unfilled, spurring the elimination of some classes.

Like other rural schools, Mendocino College is compelled to keep core courses with thin enrollment that students with nowhere else to go need in order to graduate or transfer, Darnell said.

Still, while many class sizes remain small — and less than cost-effective — the squeeze has affected students preparing to apply to the esteemed college nursing program. Melanie Douglas, a 21-year-old single mother from the Lake County town of Clearlake, had to wait three semesters to land a coveted anatomy class because of cuts in the number of classes offered.

Douglas rises before dawn and wakes 3-year-old Noah for the hour and 15-minute drive to the Ukiah campus — increasingly costly because of rising gas prices. Like nearly two-thirds of students here she is on financial aid, but if it weren't for the free care Noah gets at the campus Child Development Center, she wouldn't be here.

And if it weren't for the nursing program, she would have little hope of remaining in the region and earning enough to boost her household into the middle class.

Her lifeline is tenuous: The child care center, which doubles as a laboratory for students majoring in early childhood education, is facing possible service reductions. And Barbara French, the director of nursing education, said the region's hospitals may pull their funding of a full-time instructor, leaving her program to admit students only every other year.

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