With so many students vying for a shrinking number of classes at community colleges, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors is on its way to offering priority registration as a way of motivating students to develop and pursue an educational goal. At a public hearing in Sacramento this week, the Board agreed to put the issue up for a vote at its next meeting in September.
Under existing regulations, several groups of students are already allowed to jump to the front of the line: active duty military and veterans, former and current foster youth, disabled students, and students in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), for low-income, struggling students.
The proposal before the Board is based on one of the 22 recommendations in the final report of the Community Colleges Student Success Task Force, which the Board adopted last January. It would amend the current regulations by adding two priority categories: new students who attend orientation, are assessed for college readiness, and develop a Student Education Plan; and continuing students in good academic standing. Poor academic standing means being on academic probation for two consecutive terms or being something of a professional student by accumulating at least 100 units, far more than is needed for a degree or to transfer to a four-year college.
Although the recommendation wouldn’t eliminate the existing priority enrollment groups, it does require those students – military, foster youth, EOPS, and disabled – to meet the new conditions.
“The proposed changes encourage successful student behaviors and ensure the system is intelligently rationing classes at a time of scarce resources to provide more students with the opportunity to achieve their goals on time,” said Chancellor Jack Scott in a written statement.
Board member Geoffrey Baum said the proposal would ensure that students who are committed to succeeding in school have that opportunity. “The most frequent complaint I get is from students who write that they can’t get their courses,” said Baum, who also served as president of the board of the Pasadena Area Community College District.
Since 2008-09, funding for California’s community colleges has been cut by $809 million. Colleges have responded by laying off instructors, reducing course offerings, and, in a number of cases, discontinuing summer school. As a result, the Chancellor’s Office says 300,000 students who wanted to enroll were unable to get any classes.
Changes too hasty
Advocates appealed to the Board not to put an additional burden on students who are already at risk. “I am really concerned that, while we want to see all students be successful, we don’t want to see that at the expense of our EOPS students,” said Danita Scott-Taylor, Director of Student Support Services at San Joaquin Delta College. Several other EOPS administrators suggested that the Board of Governors cannot override state law. But Paul Feist, the Community College Vice Chancellor for Communications, said the legislation provides for Board action.
“The Legislature gave those groups first enrollment within the enrollment system that the California Community Colleges develop,” said Feist. “So the legislation does not give those groups priority if they don’t go through assessment, orientation, and an education plan.”
Even supporters have concerns, primarily about whether they’ll have enough time to put the new regulations into place, given the impact of budget cuts on personnel. Cabrillo College lost 15 staff members in student services over the last few years, assistant superintendent Dennis Bailey-Fougnier told the Board. “You cannot just turn a switch and make this happen.”
Of deeper concern to Aiden Ely, the president of the California Community Colleges Matriculation Professionals Association, is the lack of time and staff required to develop each Student Education Plan. These are supposed to be individually tailored, comprehensive road maps of what each student needs to be successful – everything from financial aid and courses students intend to take to tutoring and drug abuse counseling, he explained.
With just a few weeks between the release of the course schedule and registration for thousands of new students at each campus, he worried that many students won’t get their plans done in time and others will end up with hastily drawn up, impulsive documents.
“Is that the message we want to send to students about student success?” Ely asked the Board. “I think it totally undermines what was envisioned by the Student Success Task Force, ironically.”
His organization urged the Board to consider dropping the Student Education Plan requirement and just requiring orientation, assessment, and academic counseling. Otherwise, he warned, unprepared, young, first-generation college students will rush into developing any kind of Student Education Plan as a means to grabbing one of the brass rings of priority enrollment.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s going on out there right now,” said Ely. “Students will do almost anything to get a higher priority for enrollment. The number of students enrolled in (disability) services has jumped, not because they need the services, but because they want to enroll early.” It’s understandable why. Without an edge, many of them won’t be able to enroll in the courses they need to complete a course of study.