‘Disinvestment’ in higher education at a critical stage

California has a growing population coupled with a high 10.6 percent unemployment rate. Clearly, this makes the state’s 112-school community college system more important than ever. 

“California has experienced the largest graduating high school classes in history the last couple of years,” noted Erik Skinner, interim chancellor for California community colleges, during a recent teleconference for student journalists.

“We’ve got workers who need to retool for the workforce, and vets returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who need a place to land and make the adjustment back to civilian life,” Mr. Skinner continued.

“All of these forces are coming together at the same time to drive up demand,” he said. “Unfortunately, cuts have undermined our ability to provide those services.”

The September 26 phone briefing on the financial status of the Golden State’s community colleges drew dozens of budding reporters and a few professional journalists. 

It took place the day before the California Community Colleges Board of Governors announced the selection of their new chancellor, Brice W. Harris, who formerly helmed the Los Rios Community College District in the Sacramento area.

Mr. Skinner was joined by 2 other speakers, Dan Troy, vice chancellor for college finances and facilities, and Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. After they spoke, the 3 education advocates fielded questions from participating journalists, clarifying the complexities of the education crisis.

The chancellor’s office is prohibited from taking an official stance on political candidates and legislation. Nonetheless, the message of its representatives was clear: With no other significant source of funding in sight, Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, may represent the last best hope for California community colleges.

Proposition 30 would raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians, those making $250,000 or more, by 1 to 3 percentage points for the next 7 years. If the measure passes on the November ballot, all Californians will face a 4-year, quarter-cent hike in the state sales tax.

It is projected that Proposition 30 would net a $3 billion annual increase in school funding, 89 percent of which would benefit K-12 schools and 11 percent of which would go to community colleges.

Proposition 38, a competing tax initiative authored by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, also aims to raise money for public education, but has no provisions for the funding of community colleges. If both measures pass, the measure with the most votes will prevail.

Mr. Skinner shared some grim statistics to emphasize how badly the state’s community colleges need an influx of money.

California community colleges have experienced a loss of $809 million in funding, 12 percent of the system’s annual budget, since 2008-2009. With their collective belts tightened to the limit, community college districts have few mechanisms to cut costs besides reducing their workforce.

Over the last few years, they have resorted to cutting non-tenured professors in droves, beginning with part-time and adjunct faculty. Countless classified staff members have also been eliminated, reducing and in some cases eliminating support for students who are facing significant challenges or struggling financially.

An example is the once state-of-the-art child development center at Citrus College—that provided essential childcare for students and professors and offered hands-on work study opportunities for child development majors—which has been shuttered in the wake of recession-era budget cuts.

As a result of the instructor lay-offs, the average community college now offers 24 percent fewer credit classes than it did in the 2008-2009 school year, according to a 2012 survey of California community colleges. The reduction in non-credit courses is 38 percent.

“It’s really a crime,” Mr. Skinner said.

Other effects of the reduction in instructors include larger class sizes and graduation-delaying furloughs. Some 82 percent of schools that responded to the survey said they will not offer winter classes for the 2012-2013 school year.

“The waiting lists are longer than ever in California community colleges—the average college has a wait list totaling 7252 students. We’ve reduced summer and winter sections by 50 percent,” Mr. Skinner said. “Students are having a really hard time getting into classes they need.” 

The number of students attending California community colleges has dwindled along with the number of courses, the interim chancellor said. System-wide enrollment has declined by 485,000 students, a 17 percent reduction since 2008-2009 when community colleges reached a high-water mark of 2.89 million students.

“This mismatch between resources and demand is the most pressing public policy and social issue facing California today,” said Mr. Skinner.

It comes down to a fundamental question, he said: “Are we going to provide access to the next generation for higher education?”


High stakes that will impact many

If you think California community colleges have nothing left to lose, think again.

Currently, the California community college system is operating on the assumption that Proposition 30 will pass. If the initiative is successful, community colleges will receive $210 million for the 2013 school year.

Some of that money will go to paying deferments, money the colleges have had to borrow in order to keep running, according to Mr. Troy. Still, the state’s community colleges would be able to fund 20,000 additional seats for students relative to what was funded in the prior year.

“We’d be going in the right direction after years of cuts,” he said.

If Proposition 30 fails, community colleges will not only lose the $210 million, but will experience a devastating $338 million in mid-year trigger cuts. The full amount of the combined losses, nearly $550 million, represents 10 percent of the operating budget for the entire system.

“If Proposition 30 does fail, community colleges stand to lose about 180,000 students,” Mr. Troy said. “After all the hits we’ve taken in recent years, the state can’t afford that kind of devastation.

California is a state whose citizens have shown strong resistance to tax increases in recent years. With this in mind, a student reporter asked about the early indicators of voter sentiment towards Proposition 30 during the Q & A portion of the briefing.

It was not clear which representative of the chancellor’s office answered, but the response was sobering.

“We’ve seen a couple recent polls come out that show rather tepid support for the bill. The most recent numbers show public support at about 51 or 52 percent, down a bit from where we were earlier in the summer. The support, if anything, is dwindling among the electorate.”

It remains to be seen whether a stepped-up ad campaign can bring greater support to Proposition 30, the administrator noted.

“It’s very important for colleges and the public to understand that the threat of these trigger cuts is very real. They can happen and, when you look at current polls, there’s a good likelihood they could come.”

Mr. Troy apologized for the fact that the teleconference contained a lot of bad news. “Despite our best efforts, there’s nothing we can do to overcome the magnitude of the reductions we have faced.”

Mr. Copenhagen urged the students who participated in the briefing to advocate for the passage of Governor Brown’s initiative. 

“My organization is the Student Center for California Community Colleges,” he said. “Coming into this year in spring, when Governor Brown announced he would be putting together the tax proposal that now is Proposition 30, we very quickly decided it was something we needed to support.”

“Nobody can afford to have Proposition 30 not pass,” he continued. “We’d be losing the ability to train workers and losing the ability to raise well-educated citizens who can critically think.”

—Sarah Torribio



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