California’s community colleges are the best in the country, educating over 1.25 million students, nearly 70% of whom identify as students of color, and most are low-income. In the ongoing pandemic and a time of great economic uncertainty, our community colleges continue to provide educational and economic opportunities and real-world skills essential to our students.
But our community colleges have seen an enrollment crisis, losing over 300,000 students between 2019 and 2021. The decisions made by college administrations in the coming weeks could exacerbate the problem, narrowing opportunities for our students and harming the colleges’ future.
Let’s start with the good news.
Over the last two years, in the face of Covid, the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped up and protected funding levels despite decreasing enrollment, committing historic levels of funding. This funding commitment is intended to protect and support our community college students and programs from instability caused by the pandemic and other economic downturns.
But that’s not what is happening.
College administrators have instead set aside much of that additional money. Collectively, our community colleges have grown their reserves to 30%, that’s over $2.4 billion sitting in “rainy day” savings accounts instead of funding classes and programs for the students enrolling now in our colleges.
Here is what is going on.
Community college administrators schedule classes based on projected enrollment and needs of students, then wait for students to enroll in the colleges and the classes. Then, starting a few weeks before the semester begins and continuing a few weeks into the term, these college administrators cancel those classes that may be “under-enrolled.”
Canceling these classes is devastating for individual students. These students are already trying to balance work, life and schooling, and losing a course after signing up creates another hurdle that is often too high for them to overcome.
These cancellations disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color whose enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2021 fell at higher rates (18-25%) — with Latino students representing nearly half the total loss — than their white peers, whose enrollment fell at a rate of 16%. Once we lose a student due to class cancellations, we may have lost them forever, a steep cost not often considered when canceling a class that administrators think is under-enrolled.
The secondary effect of these class cancellations is a significant loss of faculty, especially within the ranks of part-time faculty. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, our community college system lost 12% of part-time faculty, 4% of full-time faculty and 6% of classified staff. Our community colleges rely heavily on part-time faculty, and there is currently no plan to replace the drain we see due to unrealistic class size decisions.
Some may argue that the decline in enrollment indicates more significant population trends and that spending now is ill-advised, knowing that some funding protection measures will sunset, and we’ll face a funding and enrollment cliff. But policies about minimum class size are driving us toward an even steeper cliff, effectively forcing out students who are enrolled and depleting numbers artificially.
What should be done?
There is funding available to support the smaller class sizes — colleges should not be using these dollars as a rainy-day fund but instead, they should use them as intended and retain and support the students we already have. The most crucial immediate decision a local college administration can make is to simply not cancel these so-called under-enrolled courses this semester or next.
But we shouldn’t stop there.
Rather than stockpiling reserves created by fewer course offerings, districts owe it to our students to find creative ways to expand the course options, ensuring students who could not attend during the pandemic can get the classes they need when they are ready to return.
To ensure that our community colleges continue to provide California with a strong, equitable higher educational opportunity, we need better class size policies that reflect the current environment, persisting uncertainties and the needs of the students we serve. We must ensure that every enrolled student can continue their classes in the community where they need them. But first, we need administrators to offer, not cancel, as many courses as they can, this semester and next — even if enrollment is lower than it has been in the past.
Tell your community college board of trustees not to cancel our students’ classes. Tell them to reduce overall class sizes instead. Tell them to stop hoarding the funds and start helping students. Last, I encourage you to seize this fantastic college opportunity and enroll in your local community college. Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity to re-imagine community college, and let’s build back best.
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