Survey of California Community Colleges Reveals Drastic Effects of Budget Cuts

Rich Pedroncelli, AP Images

Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system: "I don't think we're going to see the results" of the budget cuts for a decade, when "we don't have the educated work force that we desperately need."
August 29, 2012

More than 472,000 of the 2.4 million students in the California Community Colleges system were put on waiting lists for classes this fall, according to the results of a survey released on Wednesday by the system's chancellor, Jack Scott. That statistic was one of a litany featured in the survey, which presented a picture of the state's two-year colleges as struggling to maintain their missions after budget cuts totaling more than $809-million over the past three years, as well as uncertainty over possibly more cuts in 2013.

The survey results "highlight the dire circumstances" in which California's community colleges find themselves, Mr. Scott said.

The informal survey was conducted by the chancellor's office, and 78 of the system's 116 colleges responded. Among the respondents, 70.5 percent indicated that their enrollment had dropped since the 2011-12 academic year, and 20 percent reported increases. While 20.5 percent of the colleges reported no waiting lists or did not respond to the question, 79.5 percent reported that their students faced waiting lists for classes in the coming semester. At the responding institutions, 78.7 percent of all classes were expected to be full this fall.

Student-support services that are often critical to lower-income and first-generation college students that community colleges often serve also took a hit. About 68 percent of responding institutions reduced or eliminated student services.

In addition to the effects of budget cuts on students, the survey found that 87.2 percent of responding colleges had reduced their staffs between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years. Adjunct faculty were part of the cuts at 75.8 percent of responding colleges. During a conference call with reporters, Mr. Scott said that a "majority" of those reductions took place through retirements and resignations.

Over all, the open-enrollment system served 2.4 million students in 2011-2012, down from 2.89 million students in 2008-9. "None of that has been the result of a lack of demand," Mr. Scott said, but a function of the budget cuts that have hit all of California's public colleges since the recession.

Facing a 'Trigger Cut'

Beyond the cuts to date, the community colleges face an additional $338-million "trigger cut," effective in January 2013, if voters in this November's general election don't approve a ballot measure authorizing temporary tax increases.

"We think of it as having a perfect storm of economic impacts," said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of the Long Beach City College District. The two campuses he oversees have borne an additional $2-million in cuts so far in 2012 to close the existing deficit, and have reduced their administrative and support staffs by 56 as of this summer. At the same time, Long Beach City is faced with the area's largest local high-school graduating classes ever, a local work force with about a 12-percent unemployment rate, and many returning veterans. Mr. Oakley said that Long Beach City currently enrolls about 27,000 students, about 2,000 fewer than it did three years ago.

Mr. Oakley spoke of "silver linings" in recent improvements in enrollment priority and other efficiencies. But he also warned that if the ballot measure failed in November, Long Beach City would face a total of $8.4-million in cuts by 2013, and the college would "look very different than it looks like today."

Deborah G. Blue, chancellor of Central California's State Center Community College District, emphasized the stakes for Californians as well as for the colleges themselves. She said that unemployment in certain areas around the five colleges she oversees near Fresno ranged as high as 33 percent, and community college "isn't just one option, it's the only option for higher education" for many. "Our biggest fear," she added, "is that they'll be discouraged because of reductions and not come to college at all."

Mr. Scott echoed Ms. Blue in stressing the potential long-term impact of the cuts in state support to date and the possible trigger cut in 2013. "I don't think we're going to see the results of this for some time," he said, until a decade from now, when "we don't have the educated work force that we desperately need for economic vitality in California."

Corrections (8/29/2012, 5:45 p.m.): This article originally misreported two statistics about the Long Beach City College District. It has cut administrative and support staff by 56, not 60, as of this summer. And its enrollment is 27,000, not 15,000. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.