California Calamity

After state voters nix a budget bailout, one community college district prepares to do what two-year institutions always try to avoid -- turn away students.
May 21, 2009

For community colleges in the Golden State, things have gone from worse to worst.

The state’s 110 two-year institutions will lose about $825 million in funding over the next 13 months, said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California. He added that, of this large cut, $200 million will be trimmed in the next 45 days. This drastic funding cut comes thanks to the defeat of a series of budget proposals, on the ballot of Tuesday’s special election, which would have minimized cuts to public higher education and other state agencies.

“The last time community colleges saw funding like this was in 1982, before the Internet, the Americans With Disabilities Act and other costly measures,” Lay said.

Per-student funding will be reduced by around 11 percent, he said, forcing colleges around the state to turn away nearly 250,000 students in the coming year. Lay also noted that a “large number” of full- and part-time faculty members will be laid off because of these state cuts. Though he did not make an estimate for full-time faculty, he said he anticipated nearly 6,000 part-time faculty members will lose their jobs.

In one community college district struggling to plan Wednesday, there is hope that faculty layoffs may be avoided. Still, there is every expectation that courses will be slashed and students turned away in large numbers.

Constance M. Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said her district’s conservative budget approach has braced it for the worst of these state budget cuts and will protect current faculty. For instance, she noted that, unlike many other districts around the state, San Diego currently has no debt. Even still, her district will have to make some significant sacrifices in the coming year.

“One of our big-ticket reductions is being carried out through a hiring freeze,” Carroll said. “Our philosophy has been to bring our payroll down by attrition rather than layoff. So, about 117 positions are being defunded, and we expect to do the same amount next year. The worst thing you can do in any organization, especially in higher education, is to lay off people. It takes a whole generation of faculty and staff to recover. We’d rather take the most draconian measures possible to avoid laying off permanent staff.”

Most troubling of all for Carroll and other San Diego officials, these budget cuts will adversely affect the one constituency that they have been trying to shield throughout these tough economic times: students. Even before Tuesday’s vote, Carroll said, the district trimmed nearly 600 courses, despite a 10 percent jump in enrollment. As a result, about 8,000 students were left on waiting lists and did not get into any classes this year.

This summer, she continued, the district will cut about 200 courses; it will also have to cut somewhere between 400 and 600 more before the next academic year. As the state has capped the community college’s enrollment growth to 2 percent a year, Carroll estimated that nearly 9,000 students in her district will be left without any classes to take in the fall. While there are plenty of colleges that boast about how many students they reject, these numbers horrify educators at this district, who view the community college's mission as providing access to a diverse and often needy population.

“This is a horrendous period for time for us and a massive public policy failure for community colleges,” said Carroll, who strongly advocates that California change the way in which it funds two-year institutions.

Currently, California Community Colleges are entirely funded by state appropriations and tuition, which they are prohibited from raising. In many other states, community colleges may levy or ask voters to levy local property taxes to fund their operations. For these institutions, this third revenue stream often proves more fruitful than state appropriations. The recent budget crisis is California has stirred Carroll and others to push for the ability to seek alternative funding beyond state appropriation.

“If the state is not ready to fund community colleges, then they should release them to take the steps they need to obtain funding and serve the public,” Carroll said.

While faceless discussion of policy changes and strategic budget planning dominates at the district and state level, the intensely personal impact of these cuts can be felt on the ground among officials who deal with students daily.

“We have done everything possible to keep these budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, but now we are out of options,” said Rita M. Cepeda, president of San Diego Mesa College. “By law, we are an open access institution. But students will come to our campus now and seek to be enrolled and there will be no courses for them to take.”

Courses once considered essential offerings, such as those in the core curriculum offered to students seeking transfer to four-year institutions, will be among those to have sections cut, Cepeda said. Additionally, she noted that some programs with a set of sequential courses will no longer offer certain courses every semester, as in years past. She said these scheduling changes will force many students to delay their progress toward graduation, potentially stranding many before they reach their goal.

“Whereas, at the policy level, the answers might be a little cleaner; at the college level, we cannot give up on trying to find more extraordinary ways to serve our students,” Cepeda said. “Our faculty and staff are seeking ways to do more with less. We’re asking, ‘Can you teach Saturday morning?’ and ‘Can you teach more students?’ Even students themselves are offering more resources to one another. Many are now sharing books, for example.”

Many students have come to Cepeda’s office in recent weeks, she said, bemoaning that the college is not offering the “one course that they need” at a time when they can take it. Cepeda said she can only encourage the students to “not give up” and hold on to finish their degrees.

“Some of these students cry,” Cepeda said. “Sometimes I have to almost hold it in myself. But, not one of them leave irate. They all leave saying, ‘I understand.’ It’s a resiliency they have. They’re amazing. I tell them that the financial picture may be dark right now, but the future isn’t.”

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