Many community colleges across the country are struggling with higher enrollment rates and lower budgets, thanks to economic woes and a record-high unemployment rate. In California, budget cuts will soon be forcing community colleges in the state to tighten their belts even further – a move that many education experts warn could hurt the state over the long term. In addition to higher fees, colleges will also have to look at where they can cut back in their courses and services: decisions that students will feel for some time to come.
What the Numbers Look Like
According to the Fresno Bee, Governor Jerry Brown recently announced major budget cuts for the state, in the areas of education, senior services, and child care. Higher education was hit hard in the recent budget slashing, with community colleges losing a total of $102 million over the next calendar year. The budget cuts will take place on January 1, leaving schools scrambling to figure out what needs to stay and what has to go in their current financial planning.
To help cover the budget shortfalls, the California legislature is expected to approve a $10-per-unit fee increase that should cover a percentage of the reductions. This increase will translate to $46 by summer 2012. This increase is up from the current rate of $36 per unit, which was introduced last fall. Before that initial hike, students were paying $26 per unit, reflecting a 57-percent increase in fees overall since the first two increases took place.
The price increase will produce a sticker shock for many community college students in the state since most of the courses offered at these schools require three to four units to complete. In addition, many of the community college students currently attending schools in the state come from low-income families that are not prepared themselves to shell out more money for a college education. However, the fee increase will bring in an additional – and much needed - $100 to $110 million to hurting schools.
Unfortunately, the fee hikes will not be sufficient in making up the entire shortfall. Community colleges will be forced to looking at other cost-cutting measures statewide, including a reduction of services, larger class sizes, and longer waitlists for the most in-demand courses. The primary loser in these decisions will be the students, although numerous faculty members will find themselves without their jobs as well.
“Colleges are at a breaking point now,” Jack Scott, the chancellor for the California community college system, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Scott predicts that in order to make ends meet, schools will also have to initiate layoffs of adjunct faculty, in addition to creating larger classrooms where students won’t have the luxury of as much individualized attention.
This video reports on the proposed budget cuts.
The Impact of the Budget Cuts
While the budget cuts may appear on the surface to be focused on the financial state of community colleges in California, the impact of those budget cuts will be felt on a much grander scale. Scott told the Sacramento Business Journal that higher tuition rates and fewer services will prohibit many community college students from completing their degree programs or transferring to four-year universities. Lower graduation rates could also translate to a smaller educated workforce and a slower economic recovery for the state overall. In addition, income disparities will not be resolved if students from low-income families can no longer afford to go to school.
“Our state must come up with an honest solution to California’s budget problem,” Scott told the Business Journal. “We can’t keep slashing higher education budgets and raising fees to cover the shortfalls and close the budget gaps.”
A Bright Spot in the Financial Gloom
A report at Lake County News also highlights Scott’s interest in the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force. Scott believes that this group can be instrumental in ensuring the system is able to do more with less during current economic times that are less than ideal. Scott explains that the task force has come up with a reform plan that focuses on transfer pathways, certificate and degree completion, and priority enrollment. The reform plan is expected to go before the California legislature by March 1, 2012.
Specifically, this reform plan would allow students with 60 transferrable units in general education and major prep courses to earn an associate degree for transfer. The transfer plan currently includes 16 majors that were developed by California Community Colleges and the California State University System. Under that umbrella, there are more than 235-degree programs available to begin at the community college level.
This video reports on how the budget cuts impact California's neediest students.
Problems Must Be Addressed First
Despite the hope that is interwoven into the task force’s plan, the gloomy financial outlook must be addressed over the short term first. The problem will not be easy to solve. Because this is not the first time funds have been cut to community colleges in recent years, many students have already grappled with the fallout, including longer waits for required classes and fewer services to go around. With many community college students requiring some sort of remediation before they are prepared for the rigor of higher education, cuts to services like these may have a significant impact on graduation rates across the state.
“Most of our colleges prepared for the possibility of mid-year budget cuts and planned spring, 2012, course sections accordingly,” Scott told Lake County News. “Where students are really going to feel the impact of the continuous reductions in state funding is in the area of student support services.”
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