My turn: Community College: What’s in it for students (and for citizens)?
California’s community college system enrolls more students (a total of about 2.1 million) and offers more programs (at least 175 different technical fields) than any other post-secondary education system in the Unites States. In fact, one of every four community college students in the nation attends one of the 112 community college campuses in California. According to the California Community College State Chancellor, more than 70 percent of our state’s nurses and more than 80 percent of “first responders” (police, fire and emergency medical personnel) are educated in California community colleges.
For many, including me, the path toward a four-year or graduate degree began at one of California’s community colleges (I attended Palomar College in San Diego County and College of the Redwoods in Eureka). More than a quarter of UC graduates and more than half of all CSU graduates started at a California community college. In contrast to UC and CSU campuses, community colleges are also open to all, regardless of their high school GPAs or their college entrance exam scores. It is an old joke that while UC schools were intended to accept the top 12.5 percent of the state’s graduating high school seniors and CSU campuses the top 33 percent, California’s community colleges typically accept the top 100 percent of all graduating high school seniors.
Is there economic value to students attending a California community college? Unequivocally, yes! Surveys indicate that earning even some college credits (without completion of a degree or certificate) results in a wage that is 14 percent higher than for students that have only completed high school. Attaining an associate’s degree means wage increases exceeding 25 percent over those with only a high school diploma. In addition, the unemployment rate for those with an associate’s degree is typically 30 percent less than that for those that with only a high school diploma. For society as a whole, completers are more likely to have pension plans, more likely to have their own health insurance, more likely to be engaged in their communities, less likely to be on public assistance or to smoke or to be obese than those with no college experience. The Chancellor’s Office estimates that for every $1 invested in college completers, the state of California and its citizens receives a net return on investment of $4.50.
For all the good that community college attendance can do, in recent years the statewide economic downturn has severely impacted campuses’ ability to meet the educational and training needs of the state. Between 2007 and 2012, the state’s community college system sustained a budget decrease of $1.5 billion, resulting in a roughly 25 percent reduction in course offerings with the result that nearly 500,000 students were shut out of the system (Chancellor’s Office figures).
Between 2007 and 2012, you may have heard about (or directly experienced) the problems encountered by prospective students as they tried to enroll for popular and required classes. At the same time, in an attempt to partially reduce budget shortfalls, course tuition increased 130 percent — from $20/unit to $46/unit — still very reasonable from most perspectives but enough to discourage some needy students from attending. During a time of reduced resources, the state Legislature decided that community colleges should focus on preparing students to transfer to four-year schools and career training, leaving our historic mission of “life-long learning” a distant third on our list of priorities.
As a result of legislative input during the economic downturn, community colleges have revised their processes to encourage students to set and constantly evaluate progress toward their educational goals and have reduced many of the course offerings that traditionally attracted “life-long learners.” As directed by the Legislature, we’ve also restricted a student’s eligibility to repeat courses except under specific circumstances.
The result is that after four years of not being able to accommodate the demand for classroom seats, we find ourselves with a surplus of places for interested students. As the state’s educational budget picture has brightened (partially due to the passage of Proposition 30 in November 2012), resources are returning at a modest level to higher education. While our reductions in course sections drove down enrollment between 2007 and 2012, the downward enrollment trend has continued even though the number of course sections we offer has stabilized or even rebounded slightly.
After years of telling students that finding a place for them in our classrooms will be difficult, it is now time to proclaim “y’all come!” to our prospective students and to our communities. If you are interested in taking a class at Folsom Lake College’s El Dorado Center, chances are we have a seat for you (and your neighbor).
The college is accepting applications and enrolling classes now for the fall 2014 semester. You can find out more about our offerings by visiting flc.losrios.edu or calling us at (530) 642-5644.
Dale A. van Dam is the Dean of Instruction at the El Dorado and Rancho Cordova Centers for Folsom Lake College.