Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

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.

•••

Jeff Freitas is the president of CFT – A Union of Educators and Classified Professionals. James McKeever is the president of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Lowell Bennett 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Thanks for writing this! I just spoke about the perverse incentive that the hold harmless provisions are creating for districts to reduce course offerings with no negative fiscal impact from reduced enrollment.

    At Peralta CCD, I argue that this has created a downward spiral in enrollment where class reductions lead to reduced enrollment which leads to further reductions.

  2. Cynthia Mahabir 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I agree wholeheartedly with Alexis. Mr. Freitas is right to note that this period of student enrollment decline is an opportunity to 're-imagine' the community college structure. What he needs to add is that the re-imagination should include equity for the faculty by campaigning for a single-tier community college faculty structure with the state legislature as soon as the November election is over. And really, fair employment doesn't have to be re-imagined. Nor should … Read More

    I agree wholeheartedly with Alexis.
    Mr. Freitas is right to note that this period of student enrollment decline is an opportunity to ‘re-imagine’ the community college structure. What he needs to add is that the re-imagination should include equity for the faculty by campaigning for a single-tier community college faculty structure with the state legislature as soon as the November election is over. And really, fair employment doesn’t have to be re-imagined. Nor should faculty equity. Maybe I am stupidly thinking that this is the core of a union’s obligation to the workers it represents. Our community colleges will be stronger, more appealing to more students, and happier institutions for all, with equity and fair employment for the faculty as a whole.

  3. Rick Baum 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Please use this instead with corrected spelling error: The advice to “Tell your community college board of trustees not to cancel our students’ classes” has been going on at City College of San Francisco for years. Yet, the board and the administration continue to cut hundreds of classes. Since this advice has not worked, what should be done? So far electing new board members has also not made a difference. Since the problem is statewide, shouldn’t we learn … Read More

    Please use this instead with corrected spelling error:

    The advice to “Tell your community college board of trustees not to cancel our students’ classes” has been going on at City College of San Francisco for years. Yet, the board and the administration continue to cut hundreds of classes.

    Since this advice has not worked, what should be done? So far electing new board members has also not made a difference.

    Since the problem is statewide, shouldn’t we learn about what is happening at various community colleges and organize statewide actions against class cuts? Such organizing efforts would be part of a fight against racism and classism since many, if not most community college students, are from the working class and are people of color who are being deprived of educational opportunities.

  4. Malaika H Kambon 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I’ve already sent my comments directly because they’re too large for this box. Succinctly, your article’s only partially correct. You need to dig deeper into the “$$ being put away for a rainy day” excuse for class closures & examine which economic backgrounds & ethnicities of students truly get funding. And why classes are “free” for some – and only for 1/2 a year.

  5. Regina R Lamourelle 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Curriculum and Discipline Bias-We speak about equity and surface support but to put money where the support is needed is another issue. Child development courses for emerging teachers are particularly affected by course cancellation policies. At my institution, English classes have a lower enrollment cap than child development classes which must have 40Plus. Some classes that are specialties like Infant and toddler care may have 16 students and the class is canceled. Many … Read More

    Curriculum and Discipline Bias-We speak about equity and surface support but to put money where the support is needed is another issue. Child development courses for emerging teachers are particularly affected by course cancellation policies. At my institution, English classes have a lower enrollment cap than child development classes which must have 40Plus. Some classes that are specialties like Infant and toddler care may have 16 students and the class is canceled. Many of these students are also English language learners and would benefit from a smaller class to get additional support. If they were in an English class as a native speaker, they would have a smaller teacher/student ratio. Still, because the class is child development, students are expected to thrive in a much larger class. Math, English, and science lab classes are not the only classes that benefit from smaller/teacher-student ratios but these are the only classes we care enough about to allow smaller student/teacher ratios. Curriculum and discipline bias is alive and well!

  6. Jim 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    “California’s community colleges are the best in the country,” Based on?

  7. Janene Whitney 1 month ago1 month ago

    This perspective is exactly right. As a former HS teacher in CA and now a teacher in a similar state, I can say that Community College students need as much individual attention as possible right now. My current state made this same " hold back funds" mistake, and we had high drop out rates. These students also need more tutoring offered. The comsequences of holding funds means greater overall drop out rates and that … Read More

    This perspective is exactly right. As a former HS teacher in CA and now a teacher in a similar state, I can say that Community College students need as much individual attention as possible right now. My current state made this same ” hold back funds” mistake, and we had high drop out rates. These students also need more tutoring offered. The comsequences of holding funds means greater overall drop out rates and that defeats the purpose of college altogether. Additionallly, we must consider that studenrts are working as much as they can right now, so as many sections as possible must be offered.
    This money was intended to help kids emerging from the pandemic. Why do colleges get to redefine that purpose?

  8. Alexis Moore 1 month ago1 month ago

    State legislation might seem an inappropriate means to regulate workload or wages established through collective bargaining, but for the state’s part-time instructors over the last 50 years, collective bargaining has produced little meaningful improvement, much less equal pay and benefits. Collective bargaining works best for workers who share a community of interests but tend to fail in a two-tiered workplace with finite resources where more for the dominant upper tier of full-timers routinely means less for … Read More

    State legislation might seem an inappropriate means to regulate workload or wages established through collective bargaining, but for the state’s part-time instructors over the last 50 years, collective bargaining has produced little meaningful improvement, much less equal pay and benefits.

    Collective bargaining works best for workers who share a community of interests but tend to fail in a two-tiered workplace with finite resources where more for the dominant upper tier of full-timers routinely means less for the part-timers. For example, while part-time faculty are restricted from working more than two-thirds of full-time, full-time faculty may increase their much higher salaries by choosing to teach overtime, displacing part-time faculty jobs whenever they do.
    see EdSource:https://edsource.org/2022/its-time-to-fix-the-two-tiered-faculty-system-at-californias-community-colleges/676699