A debate over priorities at California’s community colleges is heating up, as the system considers putting more emphasis on first-time students who are working toward a credential or transferring to a four-year institution. The debate has deep national relevance, as the "completion agenda" may hinge on the 2.6 million students who attend the state’s community colleges.
Driving the discussion in California is a budget crisis that forced two-year colleges to turn away 140,000 students in 2009-10. Next year could be worse, with a $400 million budget cut that will freeze out an estimated 200,000 students due to course reductions.
“The demand is obviously outstripping the supply,” said Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, who notes that first-time students would have comprised all but 7,000 of the 140,000 recently denied entry.
Amid this bleak financial backdrop, a state task force is seeking to boost student success . In a report  finalized last month, the group called for the system to be more intentional about “rationing” access. Students who are most likely to earn a degree or certificate should have enrollment priority, the task force said, while those who meander or accumulate large numbers of credits without a degree should go to the back of the line.
The report has touched a nerve, and drawn criticism from students, faculty members  and a few administrators  at community colleges. At play is the state’s commitment to making higher education inexpensive and accessible for everyone. By giving priority to some students, many say the colleges will neglect part of their broad local responsibilities.
The California Community Colleges Board of Governors is considering the recommendations. If they endorse the report, it goes to the Legislature in the next two months.
In the meantime, several of the state’s community colleges are already making decisions about which students come first. Two of the most notable of those efforts – City College of San Francisco’s move to give priority registration to new graduates of the city’s public high schools, and a shift in the continuing education offerings at Santa Barbara City College – illustrate the high stakes of the access debate in California.
The 2010 pilot program at City College of San Francisco showed solid results. Fully 98 percent of 323 incoming students from local high schools who took advantage of priority registration returned for their second semester – a big retention gain from the previous average  of 75 percent. Last fall the college expanded the program, offering early class registration to all recent San Francisco public high school graduates who completed the enrollment process.
The new approach has received lots of praise , and is part of a completion push at the college that is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It faced little resistance. But at the same time, students , faculty members  and even trustees  at the college have been denouncing the task force report. They say the recommendations would hurt lower-income students who attend the college part-time, as well as returning adult students.
Santa Barbara City College has also faced recent controversy. In fact, arguments there over continuing education contributed to the president’s ouster .
In 2010 the college cut back adult education class sections and began charging tuition for noncredit courses that had previously been covered by the state.
That set off an uproar in Santa Barbara, a relatively wealthy city with a large number of retirees. Many people were upset that the college appeared to be moving away from a long tradition of offering non-credit courses for older students. A slate of candidates sought election to the college’s governing board in part to push back on the changes. Several were elected, and the college’s president, Andreea Serban, was forced out last summer.
The power struggle at Santa Barbara City College was complex and about more than continuing education. But the fracas was clearly influenced by deep philosophical divides about who comes first at community colleges. Rationing courses is a dangerous career move for college administrators in California.
The state has largely avoided tough questions about community colleges in the past, said Christopher L. Cabaldon, a task force member, mayor of West Sacramento and former vice chancellor of the state’s two-year system. The San Francisco and Santa Barbara examples are important because they deal with what Cabaldon calls a crucial need facing the system: directing more resources toward first-time students who are on a degree track, which also means less support for “leisure courses.”
That’s easier said than done, in part because of the state’s power structure.
“Folks who take Ceramics for Seniors vote in larger numbers than students who take English as a second language,” Cabaldon said.
Avoiding a 'Tragedy'
The task force didn’t pull its punches. Its 37-page final report  argues that current laws and practices favor students already in the system over new students, particularly when it comes to the difficult and competitive process of registering for courses. And students with larger numbers of credits also generally get first dibs.
“As a result, there is perverse incentive for students to enroll in classes, even if they do not further their educational objectives, simply to gain a place higher in the enrollment queue,” the report said.
California’s Legislature gave the group its marching orders, tasking members with finding ways to improve student outcomes and strengthen workforce preparedness. Given the state budget, that meant making tough choices.
The system’s Board of Governors chose the task force’s 20 members, selecting community college administrators, faculty members and students, as well as outside researchers and business leaders. A key goal of the group was to incentivize successful student behaviors.
“Policies that enable students to wander around the curriculum, withdraw and repeat classes multiple times, avoid services that could help them find a productive pathway and accumulate an unlimited number of units are a disservice to enrolled students and to those who can’t get into the system for lack of available classes,” according to the report.
Of course, not everyone agrees what a successful student looks like. The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges called the report “deeply flawed” and a “significant narrowing of the community college mission.”
Two areas of concern to the faculty association (which is not affiliated with a union) are a proposed requirement for incoming students to create an education plan and a call for students to declare a major by the end of their third semester to retain enrollment priority.
“Students should be free to deviate from education plans and have the ability to change them as needed as they progress,” the association said in a November letter  to the chancellor. “Community colleges should continue to focus on general education and to offer the first two years of a four-year college experience. This includes providing broad opportunities for exploration, growth and change.”
The association also said it would be inappropriate to penalize students for not selecting a major.
Scott acknowledged that some of the changes recommended by the task force will be painful. But he said the system doesn’t have the option of serving all students equally. “If we had more funding we could do even better,” Scott said. “We’re trying to avoid a train wreck here.”
Students who are disciplined about working toward a credential must come first given the budget crisis and workforce needs in California, he said.
“If we don’t educate these students, this is going to be a real tragedy,” said Scott.
Flash-Point and Poster Child
Administrators at City College of San Francisco call their priority registration change an “elegant solution” to a serious problem.
New students at the college have faced an uphill battle when trying to enroll in needed courses, and typically come last in the registration process. In one recent cohort, only 22 percent were able to get into math classes.
“By the time they enrolled the classes were closed,” said MaryLou Leyba-Frank, dean of admissions and records.
The college last year began offering priority registration to public high school graduates who have already gone through counseling, testing and orientation. As a result, 871 incoming students who earned diplomas from the San Francisco Unified School District in 2011 were able to sign up for classes on the second day of registration last fall. (Veterans and disabled students get the first day.)
Evidence is strong that the approach works, said Laurie Scolari, the college's associate dean for outreach and recruitment. "If you give students access to the classes they need," she said in an e-mail, "they will go full-time and they will persist."
Leyba-Frank said the college expects to see a substantial retention gain with this group, as it saw with the pilot cohort, and will continue the priority registration program in the future. The system’s leadership has said they would like to see other two-year colleges follow suit.
It was a tough sell initially, Leyba-Frank said, but people bought in when they saw the results. “We tried to give them the numbers right away,” she said.
As a result of the successful program, the college is in the odd position of being a poster child for a key part of the philosophy behind the task force report, while also being a flashpoint for criticism  of it.
Much of the task force backlash at City College of San Francisco is about what some say is a power grab by the central system. But students and faculty members  have also criticized what they see as an attempt to shove aside part-time, older and less disciplined students. The college's Academic Senate , for example, said the task force's narrow view of student success "does not recognize other vital roles that our colleges play."
Joe Fitzgerald is a student at the college and editor-in-chief of The Guardsman, the student newspaper, which organized a campaign  protesting the task force's recommendations. Under the headline “City College students defy Student Success Task Force’s definition of success,” the newspaper profiled several students like Jason Cohen, who has yet to declare a major, and might have to pay more tuition if the recommendations are adopted.
However, Fitzgerald said the recent priority registration change at the college has been “under our radar,” in part because the protest has been focused on issues that affect a broader range of students. He supports the move, and said new students should get priority status for basic English and math classes.
Paying for Continuing Education
Each of California’s 112 community colleges serves a different mix of students, as well as localities with varying expectations. In Santa Barbara, for example, state-funded continuing education for adults has become a treasured right.
Adult education programs are typically housed at K-12 institutions in California. Santa Barbara City College is one of a handful of exceptions, and as a result has “very large continuing education offerings,” said Jack Friedlander, the college’s acting president. The college enrolls about 22,000 continuing education students each year.
When Serban, Friedlander’s predecessor, tried to cut back on those offerings, she stirred up a hornet’s nest. However, observers say the anger had more to do with what some said was Serban’s style.
Tensions at the college have eased, despite major changes to the funding structure for continuing education. Friedlander said 60 sections of state-supported non-credit adult courses were converted to being tuition-based for the spring.
Supporters of continuing education don't like the changes, he said. “But they understand what's going on at the statewide level."
The college remains committed to a robust adult education program, Friedlander said, and recently created a task force to study the issue. Part of their charge will be to identify outside money to keep the courses afloat, such as through private fund-raising. The task force is also working on the creation of a Center for Lifelong Support, which is to be self-supporting.
Regardless of the final outcome of the task force’s recommendations, Scott and Cabaldon said more two-year colleges will have to follow the lead of City College of San Francisco and Santa Barbara City College. Preserving a community college system that admits everyone is certainly a commendable goal, just not a feasible one, they said.
“We’re not open to all,” Scott said. “Some people don’t want to face up that it’s reality.”
And as for Ceramics for Seniors, Cabaldon said he's not opposed to nonessential courses. He just thinks people will need to pony up the $36 per credit to take them, because the state doesn't have enough money to help.