Community colleges hurt by CSU freeze

President Obama has called community colleges “the unsung heroes of America’s education system.” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “no other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.” Yet community colleges can’t catch a break.

Two days after California State University announced unprecedented curbs in enrollment, including closing down applications for the spring 2013 semester and possibly wait-listing all freshmen applicants for the following fall, the state’s community colleges are assessing the damage.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity in Los Angeles. “Students can’t get the courses they need to transfer and when they do, the doors are being shut.”

The Community College Chancellor’s office estimates that several hundred thousand students have been turned away in recent years because $800 million in budget cuts since 2008-09 has forced the schools to eliminate thousands of classes.  Closing off spring admission will knock out another 16,000 or more, mostly community college transfer students.

“If the students can’t get in in the spring, it simply means they’re with us longer,” said Brian Murphy, president of De Anza Community College in Cupertino. “I think for a lot of them, the notion is I’ll complete more units and reapply.”

Annual number of community college transfers to CSU, UC, In-state private and out-of-state private four year colleges.  (Source:  CA Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.
Annual number of community college transfers to CSU, UC, in-state private, and out-of-state private four-year colleges. (Source: CA Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.

De Anza has one of the highest transfer rates to UC and CSU of all the community colleges. It sent more than 1,400 students to Cal State schools last year. Statewide, the number is close to 57,000 transfers. If those students can’t move on, they either leave school halfway to their goals or stay in community college and wait, because the process of getting into CSU as a current community college student is easier than as a former student.

That will put those already hard-to-get classes even further out of reach as students who normally would have moved on remain in community college, taking up seats that should be going to new students. That creates a backup in the cycle of the system, explained Rich Copenhagen, a member of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. “We’re very concerned that this will make students not pursue higher education at community colleges because they’ll be less likely to transfer, which will have an impact on the future of the state.”

Ever since the Cal State announcement, Copenhagen said his classmates in the Peralta Community College District have been contacting him. Copenhagen says students are worried. “The amount of concern I’m getting is unusual,” he said, but attributes it to how close to home this hits. “People don’t tend to identify with the cuts until it directly affects them. A lot of people aspire to transfer to CSU, so when CSU proposes cutting transfers it raises a lot of red flags.”

Impacted wisdom

The only exceptions are students in one of the majors established through SB 1440, the Student Transfer Reform Act of 2010, that created a seamless and guaranteed transfer pathway from community college to Cal State. Since it’s so new, just a few hundred students are affected. But even their choices are limited.

Of the 23 campuses in the CSU system, only eight are available for SB 1440 students: Channel Islands, Chico, East Bay, Fullerton, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Sonoma. The Chancellor’s Office is trying to spread the load so no one campus is overwhelmed. There’s no guarantee that students will be admitted to the campus closest to where they live, however, even though community college students tend to have ties to their local communities.

“They are disproportionately students of color, and what we know about students of color is that they’re more likely to have family relationships that require them to stay at home,” said Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. And that, said Lay, gets into important economic and social justice issues.

A number of Cal State colleges are on the verge of, or are already affected for regular admissions, meaning they have reached their enrollment limits in some or all majors. Once that happens, the campus can raise admission requirements.

Fullerton, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo are over-enrolled in every major and this week, San Jose State is holding required public hearings before announcing their designation. That troubles De Anza’s Murphy. He said about 60 percent of his transfer students go to San Jose State, and nearly three-quarters of his students have full-time jobs.

“Being told that there’s a spot for you in Southern California is what we might call an illusory admission,” said Murphy. “The number of working-class students who can disrupt their entire lives to go to another part of the state is an admission without meaning.”

These barriers are butting up against efforts to increase college completion rates in California and nationwide. CSU’s Graduation Initiative seeks to increase its graduation rate by 8 percent by 2015-16. The Student Success Task Force just spent a year studying the best ways to boost community college completion at the behest of the Legislature. Yet many of those same lawmakers continue to approve budgets with hundreds of millions in higher education cuts.

“There can be lots of pious talk about completion rates and graduation rates,” said Murphy, “but none of it has the ability to trump the cutbacks in recent years.”