Reality vs $ at community colleges

One of the dominant issues at the fourth and final town hall meeting on how to improve the state’s community colleges wasn’t even in the 70 pages of recommendations from the Task Force on Student Success.

“There was some eloquent testimony today that we need more funding,” Community College Chancellor Jack Scott told the 200 or so people who turned out yesterday for the public hearing in Oakland. “I want you to understand that we know we are underfunded.”

California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott delivers opening remarks at town hall meeting in Oakland.  (Source:  Town Hall video)
California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott delivers opening remarks at a town hall meeting in Oakland. (Source: Town Hall video)

Like all public education in California, community colleges have been taking it on the chin at budget time. They had an 8 percent cut two years ago, and another 5 percent this year. If revenues don’t pick up and the trigger gets pulled, their funding could drop $100 million more in the middle of this academic year, while student tuition will increase next fall. (For more on the revenue outlook, see John Fensterwald’s article today).

So when the task force was established by the state legislature in 2010 through SB 1143, it was charged with finding ways to improve student success without spending any more money. After months of meetings, the committee came up with 22 draft recommendations aimed at boosting graduation and transfer rates by strengthening support for new students, putting more emphasis on completing remedial classes, and tying students’ Board of Governors fee waivers to their progress toward earning a degree or certificate, or transferring to a four-year college.

At a time when the Occupy movements are emboldening college students and some of their professors to question the economic status quo, the task force solutions seemed to evade the critical issue for many people at the hearing. A few sat quietly holding handwritten signs reading “It’s a tax problem, not a CCC problem.” Others waited for their turn at the microphone.

“My question is really about priorities,” said Jeffrey Michels, an English professor at Contra Costa College and president of his district’s union. Michels admonished the panel for not having enough teachers involved, and said they would have come up with very different solutions based on first-hand knowledge of what would improve student success.

“We would answer that we need more full-time faculty. We would talk about professionalizing part-time faculty. Part-timers need offices and telephones, paid office hours where students can actually reach them. That’s nowhere in here,” said Michels, holding up a copy of the task force recommendations. The audience cheered him.

Squeezed for time

Others raised concerns that the timeline for approving the recommendations isn’t long enough to allow a careful review that might uncover inconsistencies and potential problems down the road. That troubled Emily Kinner, a student trustee at De Anza College in Cupertino, and president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees.

Jeffrey Michels is an English professor at Contra Costa College and president of United Faculty of the Contra Costa Community College District. (source:  Town Hall video).
Jeffrey Michels is an English professor at Contra Costa College and president of United Faculty of the Contra Costa Community College District. (Source: Town Hall video).

“I don’t see a lot of cohesiveness,” Kinner told the panel, highlighting proposals in chapters two and three as examples. The former requires students to develop an education plan containing the courses they need to complete community college, while the latter bars fee waivers from going to students who have more than 110 units, an indication, according to the task force, that the student isn’t serious about finishing college.

Emily Kinner, student trustee at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District at Student Success Task Force Town Hall in Oakland. (Source: Town Hall video).
Emily Kinner, student trustee at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, at the Student Success Task Force Town Hall in Oakland. (Source: Town Hall video).

But that doesn’t address the issue of why students are taking so many units, said Kinner, explaining that it can be a vicious circle and a contradiction. To be eligible for some financial aid, students need to be enrolled full time. But so many classes have been eliminated due to budget cuts, that some low-income students end up taking courses they don’t need while waiting a semester or more to get into those they need.

“What happens to the students who do everything right, but they’re capped out on units?” Kinner asked the panel. “Then they’re being penalized.” There are exemptions built into the proposals, but Kinner isn’t convinced that college administrations move fast enough to help students in a timely fashion. (Go here for an article on the lengths some students will go to in order to get the classes they need, and here for a public radio report on the issue).

The process moves into high gear from now on. The Student Success Task Force holds its final meeting on December 7th, then the draft report goes to the community college Board of Governors, which is scheduled to vote on the recommendations at its January meeting.  The state legislature is expecting a final report in March.

Before the hearing ended, Chancellor Scott returned to the issue of funding and reiterated that even though there’s no additional money to improve student success, “we can’t fold our arms and say we can’t do anything.” Nevertheless, he appealed to community college supporters not to let the legislature off so easily, especially when they’re raising the prison budget at the same time they’re cutting education. Lawmakers, he said, are “more interested in putting stripes on people than graduation gowns.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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