A decline of 24 percent in per-student funding over five years has led to a record decline in access to community colleges and has jeopardized the services to those students who are enrolled, an extensive study by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded.
Even though there are more potential students who should be served by community colleges, “funding shortfalls throughout the community college system have led to significant reductions in staff, considerably fewer course offerings, and severely restricted enrollment,” write the researchers of “Impact of Budget Cuts on the California Community Colleges,” which was released on Monday.
Although, the state’s 112 community colleges were protected more than four-year universities from cuts as a percentage of their budgets, they are more dependent on state revenue because fees comprise a tiny piece of their budgets, leaving them less well-positioned to weather cuts, the report said. The colleges responded by cutting back on non-credit courses, but they comprise only 10 percent of courses. As a result, the total number of sections overall plummeted 21 percent to a 15-year low, the study found. Enrollment declined by a half-million students from 2008-09 to 2011-12, even as the college-age population grew. Had the enrollment rate of 2008-09 continued, community colleges would have served 600,000 more students, the report said.
Given the need for triage, community colleges made the rational decision to give priority to continuing students, those enrolled the previous semester, since they had the best odds of completing a vocational certificate or an Associate’s degree and transferring to a CSU or UC school. As a result, enrollments of first-time students and returning students (those who had not taken a course for at least a semester) plummeted by 25 percent, compared with a 10 percent total enrollment decline.
Despite larger classes and cutbacks in sections and funding, the rates of course completion and transfer rates have slightly increased since the recession, although researchers could not pinpoint why. This could reflect that enrollment cuts at CSU and UC forced better prepared students to enroll in community colleges, or it could reflect community colleges’ narrowed focus on degree completion. The Community College Student Task Force, whose recommendations became law last fall with the passage of SB 1456, also emphasized improving student outcomes over expanding access. Given that a shortage of resources will continue, notwithstanding the availability of additional revenue with the passage of Proposition 30, the system will face severe challenges to meet its larger mission of producing an increasingly educated labor force, the report concluded.
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