Sophie's Choice for 2-Year Colleges

Throughout the last year, leaders of many four-year colleges have adopted the mantra that their institutions can "no longer be all things to all people." This has led to efforts to identify areas of strength, to carve out niches, and to drop programs best offered elsewhere.

October 5, 2009

Throughout the last year, leaders of many four-year colleges have adopted the mantra that their institutions can "no longer be all things to all people." This has led to efforts to identify areas of strength, to carve out niches, and to drop programs best offered elsewhere.

Last week, leaders of San Joaquin Delta College announced a similar philosophy. Having gone through rounds of across-the-board cuts already (1,000 individual courses have been dropped), and facing more reductions in state support, the college announced plans to eliminate entire programs to try to avoid or at least minimize additional cuts to others. This approach is a bit shocking to many at the community college in Stockton, Cal., even though they are aware of deep and continuing budget cuts facing the institution.

While community colleges don't have the graduate and research programs one would find at a university, they have tried to be all things to all people. If local residents want more recreational offerings, they can have them. If many students get through the local public schools without mastering basic skills, the community college will teach them. If local officials need new programs for welfare recipients, for helping local business, for immigrants, the community college won't say no. At least that's the way it's been at many institutions -- and given the word "community" in their names, the philosophy has been a point of pride.

But at Delta, that's not something that can be sustained, officials say.

"We've done the across the board cuts, but you can only do that so far. If you keep doing across the board, you will damage every program," said Raúl Rodríguez, the president. Many of the programs being cut are inherently good and build community support for the college, but that can no longer be the deciding factor, he said.

"We love to do those kinds of things, but when the budget gets cut, we're not going to take away a slot for a student who wants to transfer to a university over a senior who wants to exercise," he said.

His example isn't random. Each semester, almost 1,000 senior citizens take recreational, non-credit courses at the college that are slated to be eliminated now, and these students have been among the most vocal critics of the changes. But Delta is also eliminating academic programs that don't fit into the two missions that are being protected: pre-transfer programs and job training.

What will go? A lot of remedial education. The college will keep remedial courses for those who need just a course or two to be ready for college level work. But for the courses that enroll hundreds of students a semester who need years of remedial education to get ready for college, Delta is going to say no.

"Over the years, there's been a movement to get to lower and lower levels of basic skills, so we now serve some students at first, second and third grade levels" of math and reading, Rodríguez said. In most of these courses, very small percentages (well under 10 percent, and sometimes closer to 1 percent) ever make it into college level work, he said. "We just can't afford to offer these extreme remedial levels any more."

Similarly, there is English as a Second Language. The college will still offer courses for those who need one or two courses to be ready for Delta's other courses. But the ESL offerings for those just starting to learn English will be eliminated. Many weekend and evening classes will be eliminated, as will some courses offered off campus, in a further effort to centralize offerings and focus on "protecting the core," Rodríguez said.

How did it come to this? Last year, the college had to cut $8 million out of its $100 million budget due to state cuts, all while enrollment has been increasing steadily (total is now about 22,000). Those cuts were across the board, but Rodriguez said the new approach will be used for another $3.6 million that must be cut in the next few months. Rumors from Sacramento suggest that additional cuts are in the offing, and Rodriguez said he sees no sign of the kinds of political or economic changes in the state that might encourage him to wait for a recovery.

"I think it's going to get worse," he said.

Already the college has eliminated many adjunct positions, and there have been staff layoffs. He said that some of those teaching in the programs being eliminated -- including most of those who aren't adjuncts -- will get new assignments. But he said that more adjunct slots are likely to be eliminated.

Jeff Hislop, president of the faculty union at the college, said that he and his colleagues are "ambivalent" about the college's approach to the budget situation. For many who teach in programs that would be protected by the policy, he said that the philosophy understandably makes more sense than it does to those whose courses would end.

But he said that sympathy for the cuts comes from the reality that those in the "protected" areas haven't actually been protected. Hislop's situation illustrates just how bad things are right now. He teaches administration of justice, with some students seeking job training and others planning to transfer to four-year institutions, so his students should theoretically benefit.

But in the last year, as adjunct jobs have disappeared from the department, he and the other two full timers in the program have had to adjust. Hislop's schedule changed from five to six courses a semester. And his class size has gone from 60-80 per course to 95-100, with dozens more on waiting lists for each course. (Classroom size, he said, acts as a limit on enrollments.)

"We are right on that abyss, and the slope is that we have to look closely at what one instructor can do with these class sizes," he said. "If we push these high enrollments this high, we are jeopardizing the quality of education."

National experts on community colleges are not surprised to see the kinds of actions coming now in California.

Steve Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, and the co-author of a recent report on declining state support for community college, said that he was troubled by these trends, but that colleges are simply not getting adequate support.

"I am afraid that if we continue to get cuts at the level we are seeing, we may see a very quiet and disturbing transition from comprehensive, open door community colleges to niche colleges that are not comprehensive in their missions."

Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, said that he also expects to see more colleges make choices like those at Delta, but he sees this as a break from what has been standard practice. As community colleges have taken on new roles in adult basic skills education, he said, there has been an assumption that some funds accompanied the new responsibilities. Even if not all costs were covered, there were additional funds coming in, and economies of scale and a strong commitment to serving students allowed community colleges to add more and more roles, he said.

What's going on now in California and elsewhere is that "the head count-revenue link has been broken," so colleges like Delta are finding themselves unable to serve those already enrolled or who want to enroll.

Bailey said that he was torn about the idea that a college is abandoning remedial education for those who need a lot of remediation, and said he hopes that there are alternatives available near the college. He said that his center's research on remedial education shows that Delta officials are correct about the low success rates with those needing extensive remediation.

"It is true that very few people who start three or four levels below [college level] actually emerge from that," he said. But that doesn't mean that those who never reach college work are not being well served. "if you get someone from 5th grade to 10th grade, even if that's not college level, that's still a useful function" for the college to perform, he said.

"It makes sense for colleges to set priorities, especially when they are subject to such drastic cuts in resources," he said. "Across the board cuts don’t make sense. Colleges should look for programs that do not lead to good jobs, transfer, or subsequent education. I also think that colleges, when possible, should coordinate and perhaps consolidate programs, especially when they are costly. This would require some coordination across colleges and it seems to me could be done within the California district system."

Advocates for ESL also fear that the trend at Delta is going to spread. John Segota, director of advocacy for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said that community colleges play a key role for immigrants seeking to get a better education. Even if basic literacy can be found elsewhere, he said that there is a distinct advantage to offering these classes at a community college. As students start to succeed, they are much more likely to move into the college's courses than if they are studying elsewhere, he said.

ESL is frequently a target, Segota said, because its is perceived wrongly as remedial, when its students never had the chance to learn English in the first place. And an unfair reality that makes ESL vulnerable, he said, is that so many instructors are adjuncts. "So people think they will be easy to cut," regardless of the importance of their work, he said.

Patrice Burke, the student body president at Delta, praised the president and other administrators for "doing the best job they can in a very challenging time." But she is opposed to the new plans, which will eliminate the remedial courses in English and mathematics in which she is enrolled.

Supporters of the cuts say that Burke and similar students should be learning from adult education programs. But she noted that she earned her G.E.D. at a local high school's adult ed, and then learned that the college thought she needed remedial instruction. As a 40-year old single mother, there were not other good options, she said.

She said that the college is using too limited a definition of success by focusing on those who transfer to a university or complete a job-training program. While she still needs more remedial help after two years at the college, she said she has learned much more than she knew coming in, and considers that a success. "If one of our ESL students is here for a few months, and can then get a job, isn't that success, even if he never transfers?" she asked.

"I believe every student is part of this community and the college should be there," she said. "It doesn't matter if you are a level one student or a level three student. You are a human being."

Rodríguez, the president, said he feels he has no choice but the one he is making. But he said he has been moved by the stories of students who have talked to him about the impact of losing their programs. "You hear these stories," he said. "Your heart goes out to them."


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