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Stretched Too Thin: California Needs to Rein in its Community Colleges

Published:  June 22, 2010

In the last year, California’s entire system of higher education has been battered by budget cuts, skyrocketing enrollment, and student protests. All of the state’s universities have suffered, but in many ways it’s the community colleges that have been hit the hardest. While the four-year university systems can tighten admissions criteria or decide to raise fees, community colleges cannot. Instead they cut vital student services or courses -- an estimated 6 percent across the system. Current students are scrambling to get the classes they need, often winding up on discouragingly long waiting lists, and many new students are simply being turned away. First-time enrollments are down 12 percent statewide, according to the system’s chancellor’s office. The community college system is a bit like an overrun emergency room in a disaster area, with a fixed set of supplies and a never-ending stream of patients.

But open up a typical course catalog for fall semester 2010 and you might not know the system is in a crisis. Community colleges continue to offer a broad array of courses that are primarily for personal enrichment and recreation: ceramics, motorcycle maintenance, musical improvisation, table tennis, sculpture, Pilates, kayaking, rock-climbing, to name just a few. (Not to mention Korean, Portuguese, Punjabi, and Russian, among dozens of others.) It’s a fantastic set of offerings, but hard to justify when students are getting turned away from truly essential courses, for example in mathematics, nursing, or accounting. Many recreational and enrichment courses are offered for full credit, subsidized by the state at the same rate as any academic or vocational class, and take up precious classrooms and parking spots. Certainly, individual campuses are trying to make sensible cuts where they can, but it’s clear that the system as a whole is operating on a fixed track, unable to set priorities in a budget crisis and shift resources accordingly.

California’s state’s community college system is massive, the largest in the nation, with 112 colleges and serving a total of 2.9 million students each year. The size and sprawl of the system has much to do with the state’s incredible population growth, but that doesn’t explain everything. While California’s population nearly doubled between 1960 and 2005, enrollment in higher education grew even faster, with community colleges growing the most -- over eleven times during that timeframe.

Much of this growth was fostered by the state’s own policymaking, which has consistently rewarded growth through its enrollment-based funding mechanisms (and generally done little to assess and control quality). Today the community colleges are full to bursting, but that has not always been the case. In years when enrollment was naturally depressed, colleges would put up billboards and take out full-page newspaper ads looking for new students. Colleges recruited students from other states and even other countries. They mounted sports teams and offered more and more programs and classes to attract a broad range of individuals. Once the colleges expanded, they had no incentive to contract and in any case, no easy way to do it: faculty members were in place, programs were established, and communities had come to expect a broad range of classes.

Making matters more difficult, California’s fees for community college are by far the lowest in the nation at just $26 per unit. That means for a year of community college, Californians will pay about $780, compared to the national average of about $3,000 -- an incredible deal that’s available to virtually any adult state resident. Without an appropriate price signal, it’s no surprise that there are lots of students at the schools who aren’t seeking any particular degree orjob skill. They are there merely because they can be -- that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it is not the best use of the state’s higher education budget.

The idea of reining in the community college offerings is not new, but it’s certainly unpopular. Communities and students don’t want to give up inexpensive college courses for obvious reasons. And many community college presidents will argue that enrichment classes are essential for the fiscal health of the colleges because they give local residents a connection to the institutions and make them more likely to vote for school bonds.

Still, California needs to assess just how much it really costs to offer so much in the community colleges and to charge so little for it. Right now, there’s no easy way to calculate what the state spends educating people who are primarily seeking personal enrichment or recreation, so merely getting a handle on that number would be a step in the right direction. Then the state legislature needs to bite the bullet and find an effective way to eliminate subsidies for recreational and enrichment courses for people who don’t really need them. Budget crisis or no, the state is likely spending too much money on low-priority students who could find similar offerings in other places like community centers, city recreation departments, or companies like The Learning Exchange.

The question of exactly how to shed low-priority students is complicated, though. It’s not easy forbidding colleges from offering “nonessential” classes. After all, what’s nonessential? Some enrichment-type classes do play an appreciable role in students’ upward mobility, like cooking classes for aspiring chefs, for example. The problem is more a matter of identifying nonessential students -- those who don’t really need college classes for educational or economic reason -- and making them pay their own freight. One approach would be to raise fees across the system and simultaneously increase financial aid for needy students (both through state fee waivers and increased uptake of federal financial aid, which is currently underutilized by California community college students). This move would target the state’s subsidy to those who need it most and at the same time thin out the ranks of non-needy, lower-priority students.

The most compelling argument against raising fees is that low-income students might experience “sticker shock” and assume they can’t afford college. Many community college students face very significant financial challenges and a seemingly minor obstacle can throw them off course. Raising fees -- the argument goes -- particularly in a recession, can be the kind of discouraging blow that pushes disadvantaged students out of school for good. It’s a reasonable argument, but it hasn’t necessarily proven true in the past. When the legislature raised community college fees in 2003-04 and 2004-05, the legislative analyst’s office found that enrollment did decline, but it also shifted toward younger students and degree-seekers, without a disproportionate impact on low-income or minority students. It may be that the fee increases actually shrunk enrollment in a good way, by setting a more appropriate price point and shedding some students who were there for nonessential reasons. In any case, to mitigate the risk of losing financially needy students, the state would want to pair any fee increase with better financial counseling and an aggressive messaging campaign to publicize the availability of financial aid.

As California’s budget crisis forces students out of community colleges, it’s important to ask not just how many are affected, but who they are. Some ways of contracting the college system are smarter than others, and shedding some low priority students might actually be good for the health of the system. (Moreover, a full-blown budget crisis might be the only time to get the job done.) The breadth of offerings at the community colleges has always been a point of pride in the system and for good reason -- it’s an incredible resource and value for the residents of California. But the time has come to give up the luxury of cheap classes for everyone on every topic. Sorry California: you just can’t afford it anymore.

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