An increasing number of California’s community colleges are dealing with years of budget cuts by charging full price for personal enrichment classes that used to cost the same amount as academic courses. These classes run the gamut from pottery to conversational French to a slide show of someone’s trip to the Ukraine. They don’t provide any credits or lead to a degree and, until now, they didn’t have to meet any specific standards.

The Community College Board of Governors yesterday took its first look at uniform guidelines designed to ensure that students get what they pay for.

Barry Russell, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. (Photo courtesy Chancellor’s office).

“The main thing that we want to assure is that the courses are of quality and have some review on the local campus,” Vice Chancellor Barry Russell told the Board during his presentation of the 18-page document. He said about two-thirds of the 112 campuses now offer some community services courses, “but probably one-third of the colleges have strong offerings.”

Many of these courses used to be considered noncredit classes, which meant that even though students didn’t receive credit for them, they were still approved by the local district governing board and subsidized by the state. In recent years, however, as the state’s community college system took a financial hit of more than $800 million, colleges were encouraged to focus dwindling resources primarily on classes that put students on the path to an Associate’s Degree, career-technical certification or transfer to a four-year college.

“Cours­es that do not support programs of study and that solely serve an enrichment or recreational purpose should not be subsidized with state funds,” states recommendation number four in the Community College Student Success Task Force report, issued at the end of last year. “Rather, colleges should utilize community education and other local funding options to support such classes if they choose to offer them.”

That position disturbed older adults who attended the Task Force meetings held around the state last year. They worried that they would lose the opportunity to take classes that kept them feeling vital. Some backers of the Task Force recommendations disparaged enrichment classes as catering to wealthy retirees. Former community college chancellor Jack Scott took the middle ground, but remained adamant that, given the scarcity of resources, colleges had to focus on “serious” students. “We’re not against lifelong learning,” said Scott at a meeting last November. “But those students are not our priorities.” 

Enrichment classes may not be a priority for state subsidies, but they remain part of the mission of California community colleges.  Even the guidelines acknowledge that, stating, “A Community Services Offering may particularly help the college address a range of needs within the community college mission and provide specific lifelong learning opportunities to its local community.”

Community support can be particularly important these days, as the colleges seek private donations and a big voice in Sacramento.

The new guidelines, at times, read more like a business plan than a college program. Colleges are urged to ask themselves such questions as, “Is there value to the college to offer a Community Services Offering? Is there value to the community to offer Community Services programs?” In some instances, that manner is by design. Running full-fare enrichment programs on a campus “is more a business than an educational venture,” Russell told EdSource Today. “A small business, but one that’s trying to break even, not make a profit.”

Community service courses must be profit neutral; schools can’t make money on them, but they can’t lose money either. However, rather than each individual class having to pay its own way, a school’s entire program must pay for itself. That gives the colleges flexibility to charge more for some classes than others. Santa Barbara City College, for example, has a strong foundation that underwrites some classes, especially for low-income people and those on fixed incomes.

Costs vary by class and campus.  A three-hour candle making class at Riverside City College has a $59 registration fee and $20 fee for materials.  Seven sessions of Italian conversation for travelers at the college ran $89 plus $15 in material fees.  Riverside City College also offers community service classes in training to become an alcohol and drug counselor, $700; becoming a notary public, $50; and learning makeup artist techniques, $350.

The guidelines also provide a roadmap for new community college administrators who have never run not-for-profit classes before, and cover such issues as the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement, the importance of careful record keeping that’s distinct from the regular college program, methods of instruction and student evaluation, and how to figure out the costs of lifelong learning classes.

California’s community colleges have always had an independent streak and this doesn’t force them into a specific mold. The document actually supports local innovation, as long as the state doesn’t get the bill. “It needs to be a zero-sum game,” said Russell. “And I would say as this matures and offerings in the community education get more specific across the state, we might be able to zero in on some best practices.”

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