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Community colleges could turn away 400,000 students

By
March 31, 2011 |

By Nanette Asimov

An unprecedented 400,000 students could be turned away from California’s community college campuses next fall because state lawmakers are letting billions of dollars in taxes expire in June that would otherwise protect courses, Community College Chancellor Jack Scott said Wednesday.

Pointing to budget talks that stalled this week in Sacramento — and the resulting failure of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to let voters decide whether to extend and increase taxes — Scott said he expects the state to reduce its allocation to the college system by $800 million, nearly 10 percent of its total budget.

Voter approval of the taxes would have raised about $13 billion, resolving half of the state’s $26 billion budget deficit. Democrats backed Brown’s plan but were unable to persuade at least four Republicans to join them to meet the two-thirds majority required to place a tax measure on the ballot.

The Legislature has not yet decided how to make up the difference, so it’s not clear that cuts to the college system would actually double from the $400 million reduction already planned by lawmakers.

Nor is eliminating courses the only way to make ends meet, said Steve Boilard, director of higher education with the Legislative Analyst’s Office. For example, community colleges could impose a second fee hike on top of next fall’s increase, he said. The price is rising to $36 per unit, from $26. Yet higher fees can also be a barrier to college, educators said.

If 400,000 students are locked out of community college as Scott predicts, it would be roughly the same number as are enrolled in the entire California State University system.

“This is a tremendous tragedy, and a very deep blow to the economy of California,” Scott said, describing community colleges as the “No. 1 workforce training institution” in the state.

The California system is the largest in the country, with 2.75 million students. And that’s 140,000 fewer students than two years ago, when budget cuts forced the colleges to shed thousands of courses and instructors.

Meanwhile, community colleges have never been more popular, with more students knocking on the door every day to study nursing, programming and other careers; gain credits for transfer to a university; or improve basic English skills.

“These are catastrophic reductions,” said Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District. She joined Scott and other chancellors to lay out next year’s expected landscape on campuses across the state.

San Diego colleges offered 16,000 courses two years ago, Carroll said, but next year they expect to offer less than 13,000.

“People trying to train for work will not have the opportunities they need,” she said.

In Sacramento, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, disputed the idea that community colleges fuel the California economy by putting people to work.

“It’s not even true,” said Donnelly, who serves as vice chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “It’s small businesses that do that.”

Donnelly said the way to resolve the state’s budget crisis is not through tax extensions, but by deregulating businesses and eliminating state targets for reducing carbon emissions.

“I didn’t come up to Sacramento — to leave my family and my business and my life — just to put a Band-Aid over the budget,” he said.

College faculty members are having none of it.

“California will never emerge from the Great Recession without community colleges,” said John McDowell, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

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