More money, more accountability for community colleges

by Kathryn Baron, EdSource

Gov. Brown’s spending plan for community colleges reflects the new focus in the state’s 112-campus community college system on increasing graduation and transfer rates through a combination of technology, smoother pathways to Cal State University and, for students, tough love.

His budget would invest an additional $196.7 million in community colleges and leave it up to the Board of Governors to decide how it should be allotted. An additional $179 million would go toward continuing to pay back those IOUs known as deferrals, which total $801 million.

‘The governor is living up to the promises he made to the voters in November,’ said California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris, referring to the campaign for Proposition 30, the school tax initiative.  ‘Governor Brown’s leadership in passing Proposition 30 means California community colleges can begin to make room for some of the hundreds of thousands of students who have been shut out of our system due to recent funding cuts.’

The money comes with high expectations both for colleges and students.  The governor’s budget advances the work of the Community College Student Success Task Force by putting into law some of the recommendations aimed at improving graduation and transfer rates, such as improving academic advising and orientation for new students.

Michele Siqueiros, executive director of The Campaign for College Opportunity, said she’s encouraged that the governor recognized the importance of supporting ‘higher education funding and policy priorities that hold colleges and universities accountable for increasing student graduation and completion rates.’ She cited a 2010 study commissioned by the Campaign that found only three in ten community college students complete a degree, transfer, or earn a certificate after six years. It’s even lower for Latino and black students.

Students, too, would be held accountable. A significant, and likely controversial, piece of the budget proposal would cap state subsidized community college classes at 90 units. Beyond that, students would have to pay full freight ‘ from $127 to per credit based on a quarter or semester calendar.

The latest figures, from the 2009-10 academic year, show that 4.7 percent, or more than 117,000 students, exceeded 90 units.  Chancellor Harris said the hard line shows ‘that the governor is serious about enhancing completion in higher education.’  Student leaders say the proposal is misguided.

Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said that although they’re pleased that Brown is increasing their funding, they oppose any measure that would reduce access.

‘Putting a 90-unit cap on enrollment is not only limiting access, but it is limiting access to many students who may have significant need for our services,’ said Copenhagen.  ‘Our system is not designed to be a conveyor belt factory that churns out china-doll people-products.  We aim to maintain the open arms which our system has always shown the people of California.’
Adult education

In one of the most extensive and anticipated changes, the governor called for moving responsibility for adult education from K-12 schools to community colleges and gave them an additional $300 million to start the transition. Another $15.7 million is earmarked for an apprenticeship program.

‘The state has an inefficient and redundant system that is not always structured in the best interest of adult learners,’ according to the budget summary. Currently most adult education programs are run by school districts, though some are overseen by community colleges. But since categorical flex took effect in 2009, school districts have been repurposing those funds for their K-12 programs, significantly reducing or eliminating adult ed programs.  However, the budget proposal doesn’t require K-12 districts to give up adult ed if they want to continue using the flexed dollars to fund them, said Nick Schweizer from the Finance Department during a press conference on the budget.

Community College Chancellor Harris said they welcome the shift, but adult ed advocates don’t see it as benefiting adult learners. ‘Any moving or shifting of adult ed to community colleges is a serious concern,’ said Dawn Koepke, a lobbyist for the California Council for Adult Education. ‘It doesn’t make sense at all. Adult ed is tied to K-12 because we’re talking about basic skills and access. The infrastructure is already in K-12.’

The budget proposal also recommends narrowing adult education’s focus to vocational training, basic education, English as a Second Language, and citizenship. Programs formerly offered through adult education, such as arts and recreational classes for older adults and parent education classes are not included.

Harris said that $300 million is a lot less than what the state used to spend on adult education before the budget crisis. In  2012-13, the state allocated about $635 million to K-12 districts, but districts had the flexibility to spend the money on any educational purpose, and some estimate as many as 40 percent or 50 percent did so. Harris also mentioned the report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which recommended delineating responsibilities for adult education between K-12 and community colleges, but not transferring all responsibility to the colleges.

‘I think you’re going to see a lot of conversation over [this proposal] in the next few weeks and months,’ Harris said.
Virtual classes

Gov. Brown’s spending plan also prods community colleges to move more quickly to embrace technology by providing $16.9 million to develop an online campus accessible to all students.  Frank Gornick, Chancellor of West Hills Community College District, said a virtual college would be especially beneficial in his Central Valley, region where some students have to drive 50 miles to school and many others need to squeeze in classes around work and family.

‘It finally gives recognition that we can’t walk away from online education, we always have to try to make it better,’ said Gornick.  ‘There is a need out here for allowing people to learn anytime, anywhere, and online certainly meets that need in many ways.’

About 75 to 80 percent of the district’s students already take some form of an online class, typically a hybrid of online and in class, but they’re limited to the courses offered at their colleges.  A statewide e-college could eventually open every community college catalogue to every student.

What may be Gornick’s favorite part of the budget is that the governor provides an estimate of revenues for several years out, providing some predictability for funding, something that’s almost unheard of in education.

‘I know there’s always going to be some variations but you have to admit, these last four years the swings were really huge,’ said Gornick.  ‘If we could maintain this for a couple of years, we’ll be in good shape, the economy will be in good shape and maybe we can get out of this mess.’