Community colleges oversell 0.7% enrollment decline

Feb. 26, 2010

By ELISE VIEBECK

The chancellor for California’s community colleges lamented a 0.7% decline in the system’s enrollment yesterday, reporting that more than 200,000 students will be “unfunded” — that is, enrolled beyond schools’ funded capacities — this term. This announcement came amid speculation about the way forward for the state’s community colleges, which with their peculiar missions and student populations, are overlooked in favor of the UC and CSU systems.

The reported statewide dip comes at a time when community colleges might reasonably expect an increase in enrollment. The decreasing number of students admitted to the UC and CSU systems, as well as California’s 12% unemployment rate, should point students in the direction of the local, public, 2-year option, said Jack Scott, who heads the system.

“We must provide [community college students] with a realistic opportunity needed to get the crucial training and education needed to fill California’s future economic demand,” Scott said yesterday.

He added that without more state funding for his department, California could face “a future of lower wage workers, lower tax revenues, fewer public services, and the loss of California’s middle class.” Five hundred and twenty million dollars, or 7.9% of the system’s budget, was cut for this fiscal year.

Still, those figures showing a decline in enrollment may be misleading. A closer look at the regional headcounts shows what looks like isolated decreases: while 38 of California’s 70 community college districts reported declining enrollment figures, 30 reported increases — and eight of those, by 10 points or more. On average, according to the same data, districts have experienced a 0.5% increase in student registration.

“The declining enrollment means that schools are refusing to take students they cannot serve,” says Anne MacLachlan, senior researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. “The schools with increasing enrollments may face shortfalls as the year proceeds.”

Barstow Community College District, located 70 miles north of San Bernadino, may be one such case. Its student rolls have grown 19.4% since last year; yet the chancellor’s office estimates that nearly half of its students are currently unfunded.

“Our outreach efforts are paying off in large dividends, ” says Maureen Stokes, spokeswoman for the Barstow district, explaining its increasing enrollment. “By asking faculty to take more students, we will do our best to serve the students without decreasing our course offerings.”

Experts note that no matter what enrollment statistics show, demand for community colleges remains strong among several core groups — especially underserved minorities, high school graduates who intend to transfer to four-year schools, and adults in need of job retraining. Still, they say each college tends to have a different mix of these students, meaning that each must tailor its offerings toward the needs of its community.

“Let’s be honest,” Scott said at a community colleges convention last year. “In the past, in our rush to serve the needs of many, we may have initiated classes and programs that we now can get rid of. We have engaged in what I call ‘mission creep.’ We did some good work, but not essential work.”

He added that now was the time to “eliminate courses that are primarily avocational.”

Echoing Scott, Institute for College Access and Success director Debbie Cochran advised yesterday that schools wisen up when it comes to their offerings.

“No student wants to say, ‘Ok, cut my program. But it’s important for the colleges to look closely at the populations they serve, and the surrounding communities, and prioritize their needs.”

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  1. EastBayLarry
    EastBayLarry 26 February, 2010, 09:49

    Which courses at which schools are ‘avocational’? Is this like “Basket Weaving 101”? If so, sure dump those so people can learn useful skills.
    How about expanding nursing courses? The demands for RNs and LVNs has been growing faster than could be filled for decades.

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