Slashed budgets have severe impact on California’s community colleges

An unprecedented string of state budget cuts since 2007 have led to a 20-year low in California’s community college enrollment, according to a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), co-authored by Belinda Reyes, director of SF State’s Cesar E. Chavez Institute.

This dramatic decline comes at a time when the state is facing a critical shortage of skilled and educated workers, said Reyes, who is also an associate professor in the Latina/Latino Studies Department.

A projected shortfall of 1 million college-educated workers in California over the next two decades poses a threat to the state’s financial health and innovative economy, the PPIC researchers said. On a more personal level, they added, individuals and families may be poorly equipped to weather future recessions without a higher education.

A photo of Belinda Reyes

Belinda Yeyes, director of SF State’s Cesar E. Chavez Institute and associate professor of Latina/Latino studies.

More than $1.5 billion in budget cuts have forced community colleges to cut staff and offer fewer classes. Since 2008, the number of academic-year course offerings has dropped by as much as 21 percent, and summer course offerings have declined by 60 percent.

To cope with budget shortfalls, the community colleges have emphasized their core academic and career classes over community education classes. But since 90 percent of the classes offered fall under this core mission, these classes have absorbed a significant number of the cuts.

The result, the authors note, is that the colleges are enrolling fewer first-time students.

“These cuts have concentrated more on the younger ones who have just graduated from high school as well as non-traditional students,” who as Reyes explained are becoming a large part of the student population. She said the cuts hurt a growing group of “non-traditional” students, who work and go to school part-time, and may drop out and return to school multiple times.

There was some positive news for already enrolled, continuing students, the researchers found. Across the full student body, including communities of color, continuing students were more likely to complete their courses, complete them with passing grades and successfully transfer to a four-year college or university.

Researchers don’t know yet whether these successes stem from college policies, students’ characteristics, the overall economic conditions in the state, or some combination of all of the above.

The higher completion rates for students are good news, Reyes said, but the worrisome numbers about decreasing enrollment “are telling us we need to keep an eye on access to higher education as well.”

Schools in the California State University and University of California systems have also been hit hard by budget cuts, but community colleges are more dependent on state general fund support, the PPIC authors concluded.

California’s Proposition 30, a sales and income tax increase initiative, became law in the middle of the PPIC study. But Reyes and her colleagues report that the community college administrators they interviewed for the study were equally pessimistic about their finances before and after Proposition 30.

“If it’s one or two years, you make the adjustments, “ Reyes said. “But when you have sustained declines you’re getting to deeper cuts. They say this money doesn’t even compensate for all the losses.”

The administrators also believe that fewer than half of elected public officials are aware of the financial difficulties in community colleges. Reyes said the passage of Proposition 30 “does signal that the public is aware and supports further funding for higher education.”

The report, “The Impact of Budget Cuts on California’s Community Colleges,” is available for download at the PPIC website.

-- University Communications