By Nanette Asimov
For the first time in years, California’s community colleges are opening their doors to more students — about 60,000 more — instead of turning them away.
College officials on Wednesday credited Proposition 30, the tax increase approved by voters in November, for propelling a happy domino effect across the college system: More money pays for more courses, which allows more students to enroll.
Still, the 112 community colleges in the system had turned away 10 times that number of students, about 600,000, since the recession began in 2008, and college budgets had been cut so deeply that the turnaround will take years to complete.
“I think we’ll be able to do it quicker than 10 years — 2017 is a pretty reasonable expectation” to get back to the number of students and courses offered before the economy went south, said Chancellor Brice Harris of the state’s community college system.
$810 million this year
Prop. 30 is infusing the colleges with an additional $810 million through the current budget year. That’s less than the $1.5 billion lost during the four-year recession but apparently enough to help the colleges begin to bounce back.
At its height in 2008, enrollment in the nation’s largest community college system stood at 2.9 million students, officials said. Last year, enrollment plunged to about 2.3 million but is expected to rise by about 60,000 this year — 10 percent of those turned away.
A new survey shows enrollment growth at 86 of the 95 colleges that responded, Harris said.
The increase is evidence that schools are able to afford more courses and instructors. Unlike four-year universities, which can turn away students who don’t meet academic standards, community colleges must enroll all students – unless there aren’t enough classes for them.
Between 2011 and 2012, for example, colleges reduced course offerings by 3.3 percent, resulting in an enrollment decline of 5.5 percent, according to state data.
That downward trend has been largely vanquished.
Of the 13 Bay Area colleges that responded to the survey, all but one were able to offer more course sections.
Only Cañada College in Redwood City showed a decline, of nearly 5 percent. Officials of the school did not return calls.
Area schools that boosted course offerings anywhere between 1 and 11 percent were Chabot College in Hayward, College of Alameda, College of Marin, Contra Costa College, Diablo Valley College, Laney College in Oakland, Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, Napa Valley College, Ohlone College in Fremont, San Jose City College and two Santa Rosa Junior Colleges.
“After years of all the bad news, we’re finally able to begin to restore the classes and services that students need,” said Jeff Heyman, spokesman for the Peralta College District in the East Bay. In addition to Laney and College of Alameda, the district includes Berkeley City College and Merritt College in Oakland.
More than 220 classes have been added across all four colleges since last year, thanks to Prop. 30, plus $7 million a year for eight years from a new parcel tax. With that, the district has hired more than 40 additional instructors, counselors and other staff, which has meant a blossoming of new classes over what the schools had last year – more than 80 each at Laney and Berkeley, Heyman said, and more than 40 at Alameda and 14 at Merritt.
No word from CCSF
City College of San Francisco, the state’s biggest, and most troubled, community college, did not respond to the survey. The vast school is struggling to remain accredited in part because administrators refused during the recession to cut classes and lay off faculty as the school’s state allocation shrank. Fall registration is down 14 percent from last year — a loss of nearly 3,000 students.
Meanwhile, college officials elsewhere said that though they are admitting more students, thousands can’t register because colleges still can’t afford to offer enough classes to meet demand.
“We’re thrilled that some access has been opened up,” said Dianne Van Hook, chancellor of the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), who joined Harris in announcing the survey results.
“Not being able to say ‘yes’ to students is a hard thing.”
Thousands on wait lists
Across the state, 55 percent of courses were full, leaving more than 5,000 students on wait lists for 60,000 courses, according to the survey.
The average class size was a roomy 26 in 2008. As courses declined, 31 students packed into classes, on average. The latest survey shows a slight easing, to an average of 30 per class.
“We’ve stopped the bleeding,” said Chrisanne Knox, spokeswoman for Diablo Valley College, which has added 150 new classes to its fall schedule and 4,500 additional students to its enrollment of 20,000.
But she and others can’t help but wonder about the hundreds of thousands of students up and down the state who couldn’t get into essential courses, mostly basic math, English and sciences — prerequisites for other courses and for transfer.
“Students can’t just wait for a college to be ready for them,” Knox said. “They don’t just sit around playing video games. So we’ve really missed four years of students.
“And that’s tragic.”
— Reach Nanette Asimov at [email protected]