SAN FRANCISCO, March 25, 2013—Student enrollment rates in California’s community colleges have dropped to a 20-year low in the wake of unprecedented cuts in state funding, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
In the Great Recession and its aftermath, the community college system sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts between 2007–08 and 2011–12, the report finds. These cuts are far larger than those made during past economic downturns in the state. The colleges responded by reducing staff, most notably among instructors. Courses were cut and class sizes increased. Academic year course offerings fell 21 percent and summer offerings fell 60 percent in these years. While non-credit courses—those for remediation or enrichment—were cut dramatically, courses taken for credit toward a degree, certificate, or transfer sustained the bulk of the cuts because these classes make up 90 percent of all offerings.
These cutbacks led in turn to a decline in access for students. Had enrollment rates remained at 2008-09 levels, the community college system would today be serving an additional 600,000 students. The sharpest declines in enrollment are among returning students—those returning to school after an absence—and first-time students. Enrollment of first-time students declined by 5 percent—even as the number of California high school graduates increased by 9 percent.
“The decline in access of first-time students is troubling, given California’s longstanding need to increase college-going rates for new high school graduates, who are the workforce for the future,” says Sarah Bohn, PPIC research fellow and co-author of the report. The other co-authors are Belinda Reyes, PPIC adjunct fellow and assistant professor at San Francisco State University, and Hans Johnson, Bren fellow and co-director of research at PPIC.
The PPIC report documents how the community colleges—the largest system of higher education in the nation—have adapted to funding cuts and demonstrates the resulting impact on students, from access to completion of classes. The report is based on official community college reports and on a survey of more than 100 senior administrators throughout the system conducted in fall 2012.
As set out in the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, the community colleges have multiple missions: They offer courses leading to an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year university, they provide vocational and career technical education, they teach basic skills like pre-college English, and they offer enrichment to adults in the community. The colleges cannot restrict enrollment by denying admission to eligible students—and nearly all California adults are eligible. But an unprecedented decline in state support led the colleges to restrict access in other ways.
PPIC’s survey of administrators shows that the colleges have prioritized their core academic and career technical missions. Enrollment declines have been lowest for these courses. Nearly all administrators say they also give priority in course enrollment to certain students, usually continuing students—those enrolled the previous semester. Recent high school graduates and basic skills students were less likely to get priority.
These priorities led to a dramatic change in the age composition of the colleges’ students: Enrollment among the oldest and youngest students has declined sharply.
At the same time, students who have remained in the system are succeeding at higher rates, the PPIC report says. Success has improved by three measures: the share of students who complete a course, earn a passing grade, and successfully transfer to a four-year college or university. The success rates have increased for every ethnic and racial group.
It is not clear whether these improvements came about because the students who remain enrolled are the most able and motivated, the colleges changed their practices and policies, or a poor economy made staying in school more attractive. But the results are consistent with administrators’ decisions to prioritize the enrollment of continuing students. More likely than others to get the classes they need, they have been less affected by the budget cuts.
“Setting enrollment priorities makes sense, especially because community colleges have been criticized for their students’ low completion rates,” Bohn says. “As the system’s fiscal outlook improves, it’s important for policymakers to weigh the colleges’ multiple missions and their ability to achieve them.”
The fiscal outlook for community colleges is brighter today because of revenue from the passage of Proposition 30 and potential increases in the 2013–14 state budget. But the additional funding is unlikely to make up for years of big cuts. The report concludes that if community colleges are to fulfill their multiple missions, they will need to look at finding additional cost savings and developing new revenue sources. Finding new revenue will be difficult because community colleges—unlike CSU and UC—cannot raise fees, which are set by the state legislature. One source of that funding may be local parcel taxes. Another is changes to the fee waiver system. The colleges have waived fees of as many as a third of students in recent years. The income threshold to qualify for a waiver is relatively high. If the threshold were lowered, some students now getting waivers may be able to pay their fees, which are relatively low, on their own. Others are likely to qualify for federal financial aid but don’t necessarily apply for it. Requiring them to do so, as the governor has proposed, could bring in federal dollars.
The report, The Impact of Budget Cuts on California’s Community Colleges, is supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and The James Irvine Foundation.
PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.