TOPICS > Education

California Community Colleges Face Dilemmas Amid Tighter Budgets

April 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With 2.6 million students, California's community colleges make up the largest higher educational system in the country. Spencer Michels reports on the system's efforts to reshape its future as budget problems have forced the state to cut back support and tuition hikes have sparked student protests.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, community colleges feel the strain of tight budgets and rising demand. California is one state where the problem has been particularly prominent of late.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

WOMAN: It’s a beautiful color back here, but that’s not what you want.

WOMAN: Okay.

SPENCER MICHELS: This cosmetology class at Sacramento City College is full, and there are students waiting to get in. It’s a familiar pattern in California’s 122 community colleges — 2.6 million students attend California community colleges, making them the largest higher education system in the country.

WOMAN: And what will the little T. represent?

STUDENTS: Time.

WOMAN: Time. And what kind of unit. . .

SPENCER MICHELS: Many of those students are enrolled in remedial courses like this math class to bring them up to college level. During hard economic times, the number of students seeking to attend community college has been steadily increasing.

Some come to earn contracts before transferring to a more expensive four-year institution. Others are looking for vocational skills,like those in this business marketing class at Laney Community College in Oakland.

MAN: So, basically, what we’re promoting is high-class for low-class-priced money. So people with low-class money can go to a high-class barbershop and feel like they came out feeling like a million bucks.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adult often attend to learn English as a second language. This class is at Gavilan College in Gilroy.

And others come to pursue art, music, and other non-credit classes they say enrich their lives. But community colleges say they can’t continue to serve everyone at low cost, especially since budget problems have forced the state to cut back its support.

A proposed solution at Santa Monica Community College, to quadruple the cost of some popular courses this summer in order to limit enrollment and to raise money, led to protests and conflict with campus police. The price hike was canceled, but the search for a solution continues.

In most community colleges in California, the number of classes have been cut and potential students have been turned away.

Brice Harris is chancellor of the Sacramento-based Los Rios Community College District.

BRICE HARRIS, chancellor, Los Rios Community College District: We really have seen about 15,000 students denied access to these colleges just in the Sacramento region. And some estimates statewide show that number to be in excess of 300,000 students.

SPENCER MICHELS: To be more cost-efficient, community colleges want to find a way to have more students graduate or transfer to a four-year college within a few years.

In the past, the colleges were encouraged to accept just about everyone who had a California high school diploma. Nearly three-quarters of students who were admitted were underprepared for college-level work, most of them first-generation college students from low-income and minority families.

In a study released this year, only 54 percent ever achieved a degree, a certificate or transfer preparation. For African-American and Latino students, the percentage was even lower.

Chancellor Harris was part of a statewide task force on student success. He thinks what is needed is to get students to focus on a goal earlier, instead of bouncing around from course to course.

BRICE HARRIS: Because our research shows that if we can help them declare a major and state an educational goal soon after they arrive, they’re more likely to achieve that.

WOMAN: What are your plans for your career?

MAN: You know. . .

WOMAN: Are you premed?

SPENCER MICHELS: Additional college counseling is one recommendation. And counselors are already implementing other parts of the report, guiding students to take courses in their major and avoid classes that don’t help them reach their goal.

The report also wants colleges to assess all students and post scorecards to show student progress. Another recommendation, find new approaches to teaching basic skills.

The main thrust of the report has the blessings of Chancellor Jack Scott, a former legislator and college president.

JACK SCOTT, chancellor, California Community Colleges: We’re not saying you have to rush through, but we are saying that it’s time that you get your act together because there are literally thousands that are standing outside those classrooms wanting to get in.

We want to improve our remedial education. It will be open to all, but we’re not only interested in access. We’re interested in success.

WOMAN: Everything went well. You had good opening statements.

SPENCER MICHELS: At Gavilan College, Leah Halper teaches history and conflict resolution and is active in her union. She, as well as others, have publicly questioned whether pushing students quickly through the system will lead to success.

LEAH HALPER, Gavilan Community College: Students don’t necessarily come here and function really well right from the beginning. Often, students take a while to fail a class or two. And then they kind of get college figured out.

SPENCER MICHELS: Harper’s students are worried about the changes coming.

KARLA PEREZ, student: You know, there’s people at community colleges that have children, they have families, they have other responsibilities, things that come up in life that don’t allow you to be able to just be a full-time student.

ISAAC GONZALEZ, student: I’ve been here about four years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Four years. Now, what is your goal?

ISAAC GONZALEZ: My goal, I graduated already actually my A.A. in administration of justice. But, unfortunately, with the economy, I couldn’t get a job, so I’m going to continue on with more studying.

EBEN SALGADO, student: They do tend to push you on a little bit more to take a little bit more classes than you actually are capable of. You may get a D or an F in a class and you may not pass it, but you have to take it over again. But they’re trying to rush you from getting out of here.

SPENCER MICHELS: While community college officials insist that the basic mission of these schools is not being altered, the changes that appear to be coming down the pike would seem to indicate that at least part of what these schools do is changing.

Traditionally, community colleges have also served their communities by providing classes in art, music, literature, languages, computers and physical education — many of those courses for seniors. But the student success task force is recommending community colleges give priority to new first-year students who want to go to a four-year college or a job.

JACK SCOTT: It’s a little unfair to let somebody just be a professional student when there are literally thousands of first-year students that are being turned away, if somebody is there merely for an avocational course, that maybe they shouldn’t be ahead of someone who’s there to transfer or to get a vocational certificate.

SPENCER MICHELS: At Gavilan, 40 sections of non-credit classes for seniors were recently eliminated, much to the chagrin of Rachel Perez, a college administrator.

RACHEL PEREZ, Gavilan Community College: Aerobics classes and movement and health classes, wellness classes.

SPENCER MICHELS: And those are essentially gone now?

RACHEL PEREZ: They’re all gone. Community colleges fulfill different missions and they attract different folks. Older adults was one.

SPENCER MICHELS: Seventy-six-year-old Tom Breen is a semi-retired judge and a Gavilan College trustee who’s taking a drawing class for fun. One of his classmates is a police officer who uses the art classes to decompress.

TOM BREEN, retired judge/art student: It’s the only place where adults I think can get this kind of training for a reasonable cost. I don’t want to take anybody’s seat. If somebody needed to take art, I would not be here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Finding solutions to these sticky problems may take more than de-emphasizing non-credit continuing education classes and speeding goal-directed students through the system.

Despite student protests, tuition increases across the board may be one way to address those problems, for a system that prides itself on its low cost and hates the fact that it’s actually rationing education.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our website, Spencer continues his reporting in a blog post, and looks at what a remaking of community colleges would mean for slow learners, older students and those without much money.

In the original transcript, Gavilan Community College professor Leah Halper’s name was spelled incorrectly.