Death by 18,000 cuts
Los Rios community colleges may turn away 18,000 students
That giant sucking sound you hear next fall could be the whoosh of Los Rios community colleges shutting the door on thousands of students. That sound could also be the brain drain of high-school students turning to other states due to the diminished quality of higher education in California.
With the state facing huge funding gaps, California’s community colleges anticipate turning away as many as 400,000 students next fall—about the same amount as those currently enrolled in the California State University system. For the four schools in the Sacramento area’s Los Rios Community College District, this could mean turning away 18,000 students for the fall quarter.
“Students are going to get hurt, and the economy as well,” said Susie Williams, a spokeswoman for the district, while noting that the Los Rios educates about 40 percent of Sacramento County’s high-school graduates. The decline in higher education is also leading nearby states to recruit California’s large crop of high-school graduates, she added. In 2009-2010, for instance, California’s community colleges lost 8 percent of their funding, along with 38,000 fewer courses and 140,000 fewer students enrolled.
These diminishing opportunities are expected to get worse. Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget plan, California’s community colleges would lose $400 million in funding (the CSU and University of California systems would lose $500 million each), though the number could double to $800 million if Gov. Brown does not get tax extensions passed. As a result, Williams said the Los Rios district anticipates having to turn away students, eliminate classes and use fewer adjunct faculty.
“We could end up with lot of students who don’t have [the option of enrolling] or don’t have the credits they need to transfer to a CSU or UC,” Williams said, while adding each system is facing strict caps on enrollment. The cuts would also hurt students from lower-income families. The nonprofit group, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, reports that the average annual median income for full-time students is $16,223, and about one in four students have an income of $5,544 or less.
“It will have a huge impact on our region,” Williams said. “We are providing the training and producing the vast majority of the area’s cops, nurses, paramedics and others. This will have huge implications for the social and economic health of our state. … An entire generation of students who can’t get a college education? … Not good.”
In part to offset the drop in funding, the California community-college system will raise tuition from $26 to $36 per unit in the fall. (This will also increase the cost of a two-year degree to about $2,160.) The fee increase is expected to generate $110 million for community colleges and is just the latest tuition hike, with fees jumping 327 percent in the last 10 years.
Steve Boilard, an official with the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, added that “the state budget [will] decide how much funding colleges will get for each student, but each college/district will decide how to spend that money on faculty salaries, equipment, administration.”
At the Los Rios colleges, Williams said the district, which includes American River College, Cosumnes River College, Folsom Lake College and Sacramento City College, plans to limit the number of classes offered. Already, a March survey by the philanthropic group, the Pearson Foundation, found that nearly half of California’s community-college students have had trouble getting the classes needed to graduate. Only 30 percent of students in other states had similar difficulties in enrolling, the survey (based on fall 2010 classes) found.
“Continuing students will be the priority, but it’s difficult because we want to see as many students as possible, and new students deserve a chance, too,” Williams told SN&R. “There are lots of programs where you have to progress from class to class, and now that progress will be delayed.”
In the best-case scenario, the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office says Los Rios will have to cut between 5.5 and 7.5 percent of its classes in the fall. Assuming $800 million in funding cuts, also known as the all-cuts scenario, the district faces dropping 15.5 percent, or 2,305 of its classes.
For current students, such changes will be similar to what they have already experienced.
“All of the classes already have waiting lists of 20 students, and those lists are considered a joke because people never end up getting in,” a nursing student named Kristen said as she stood outside of Sacramento City College’s Learning Resource Center. She added she moved to Sacramento from Santa Cruz because community-college nursing programs in San Jose have waiting lists of seven years, leading some friends to leave the state or give up on a nursing career. At SCC, Kristen said the waiting list was two years, and she has been able to enroll in certain classes more easily than other students because she had a learning-disability waiver, though she sometimes goes to American River College to see if classes there are easier to get into.
Her classmate Natasha suggested SCC should have more strict policies about the number of classes students could enroll in and then drop, as a way to mitigate the smaller number of available classes. “A lot of times a class ends up being half-full from the start of the semester [because of drops], which is too bad, because so many people want to get in,” she said.
For prospective students, she recommended being aggressive and planning ahead. “You should really know what program you want to be in, whether you want to transfer to a four-year school, sign up early and get your general elective [requirements] out of the way early,” she said as she stood on the quad.
Such advice echoes the suggestions Los Rios staff have for students hoping to enroll.
“We are advising students to get their application and registration process started as early as possible,” Amanda Davis, a SCC spokeswoman, said. We are also encouraging students to see a counselor and develop their educational plan early, so that if they are not able to get certain classes they need, they can plan for alternates with the help of our staff and faculty.”
Added Los Rios’ Williams, “In the past, students could be slackers and dillydally about enrolling and wait to the last minute, but not anymore. You have got to be on it.”