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Student walks in front of student services center at East Los Angeles College

Community college leaders say the Fifty Percent Law limits their ability to invest in wraparound student services that indirectly impact students’ academic success.

Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Long-standing tensions over a controversial California law are resurfacing as COVID emergency relief funds for higher education dry up. The legislation, enacted in 1961 and known as the “Fifty percent Law,” requires community colleges to spend at least half their budget on instructional costs.

Unique to California, the law is beloved by faculty members—who say it prioritizes smaller classes and full-time instructors—and disdained by many administrators, who argue that it prevents them from funding other vital programs, including food and housing supports to meet students’ basic needs, new technology, and student advising.

“It pits staff and administration against faculty, which is what we don’t want,” said Kindred Murillo, a longtime California community college administrator who recently retired. “We want everybody working together for the benefit of students.”

The two sides have been debating the funding model for over a decade, but growing financial pressures have injected new urgency into the discussion.

“We’ve heard from colleges for many years, but especially more recently, that the law can be a constraint in meeting the very real obligations and needs of their students,” said David O’Brien, the California Community Colleges’ vice chancellor for government relations.

In some ways, the pandemic allowed a temporary appeasement of the dispute. While it brought more attention and demand to community colleges’ noninstructional programs, it also provided emergency relief funds, which were exempt from the Fifty Percent Law. That meant college leaders could invest in expanding wraparound services for students while still upholding the law and maintaining instructional funding.

But the spending deadline for federal COVID relief funds passed in June, and state provisions will dry up in the next two years, which many community college officials believe will create new hardships going forward.

For one thing, community colleges have largely relied on the COVID money to help fund the development of one-stop basic needs centers, which the state Legislature began mandating two years ago. When that support ends, institutions will still have to account for running the centers.

“The basic needs coordinator has to be an identified staff member at each college who’s responsible for coordinating all the basic needs efforts, but that again, counts against the Fifty Percent Law,” O’Brien said. “That’s somebody whose salary is going to be considered as an administrator.”

An ‘Antiquated Anathema’

Administrators argue that the original law didn’t account for all the social services colleges are called on to provide today.

“If you talk to almost any college president or chancellor … They’ll point to the Fifty Percent Law as antiquated, anachronistic and anathema to all the evidence about what’s needed for student success,” said Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, which supports locally elected trustees and community college CEOs.

COVID may have “accelerated” the demand for noninstructional social services, but administrators across the state said struggles to fund those services predate the looming drop-off of pandemic relief funds.

“All of those expenditures, which are absolutely needed and required for student success, are hamstrung by this law, which says your general fund has to expend at least 50 percent on direct instruction, which is so narrowly defined,” Galizio said. “You could take the COVID money out of the picture and you would still have a completely illogical, irrational law that hinders colleges.”

In a state where 35 percent of community college attendees are first generation and 64 percent are classified as “economically disadvantaged,” according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, support for basic life needs is becoming a standard expectation.

Ricky Shabazz, president and CEO of San Diego City College, said he’s turned to grants—which are not impacted by the Fifty Percent Law—as an alternate way to fund noninstructional support services such as mental health and housing crisis counselors. Those positions didn’t exist when the law was first written.

“It’s thrust us into a place where we have to write grants in order to bring in the revenue or the resources so that we don’t find ourselves out of alignment with the Fifty Percent Law,” Shabazz said. “These folks impact a student’s success on the instruction side. So very simply, it needs to be updated.”

Several administrators said that they would be open to increasing the budgetary percentage for instructors if more nonclassroom staff were included. Shabazz said he’d accept a requirement that staff currently labeled as “noninstructional” teach at least one course in order to be adopted under the categorization.

“That’s the middle ground without entirely blowing up the Fifty Percent Law,” he said.

It Shouldn’t be ‘an Either-Or’

But faculty representatives worry that any changes to the law, especially those made without adjusting the percentage set aside for instruction, will encroach on teaching and lead to administrative bloat.

“We recognize that students need wraparound services … there are lots of things that we do for our students now that maybe we didn’t do 20 or 30 years ago,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC). “Success doesn’t happen just in the classroom, but it’s not going to happen without education. That’s still our primary goal.”

Brill-Wynkoop said that if the Fifty Percent Law were eliminated, institutions would need to cap class sizes and set strict requirements for the minimum number of full-time instructors and maximum number of administrators.

Evan Hawkins, executive director of FACCC, suggested that colleges could supplement some of the support services they provide and cut costs by better connecting students with preexisting local welfare services.

“It doesn’t seem like it should be an either-or. It shouldn’t be that in order to ensure that our students have their basic needs met, faculty need to have larger class size or more of them need to be part-time,” Hawkins said. “I think we can do better than that.”

He also noted that some problems could be solved if California’s community colleges received funding equitable to the state’s public four-year institutions. The University of California, for example, received $15,151 in general fund state support per student in the 2022–23 academic year, whereas each community college only received $11,360.

“If our per-student funding rate was the same as UC, we could do all that we needed to,” Hawkins said.

Grappling With a Question

Several work groups commissioned by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office over the years have looked into options for changing the Fifty Percent Law, but none has ever developed a concrete alternative plan, according to Brill-Wynkoop.

The most recent work group, which released its final report in 2019, suggested that redefining what’s included in instructional costs—adding librarians’ and counselors’ salaries, for instance—would also require re-evaluating what percentage of the budget is allocated. But it did not determine what that percentage should be.

The state Legislature is also currently conducting an audit of 10 community college districts’ compliance with the Fifty Percent Law, sponsored by a faculty union group, California Community College Independents, and approved in June. The results are expected to come out some time next year.

O’Brien described “a very lively” bipartisan discussion among legislators at a committee hearing on the audit, where they grappled with the question “Should we just look at this 1961 law that dates from when John F. Kennedy was president … as the barometer of whether our colleges are meeting their obligations? Or should we have a higher standard?”

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