February 22, 2008

How Will Community College Access Be Impacted by the Budget Cuts?

By Carolyn Goossen
New America Media

Editor’s Note: The $4.8 billion proposed budget cut targeting K-12 and community colleges could further cramp access to community college for thousands of students. NAM education editor Carolyn Goossen spoke with Abdi Soltani, Executive Director of Campaign for College Opportunity who has been advocating for legislation to help low-income students in middle school, plan for college, and offer them community college fee waivers.

What do the proposed budget cuts mean for California community colleges?

The Governor has proposed a 10 percent cut across the board, including K-12 public education and community college. For community colleges, the cuts will mean a net loss of 50,000 students. (In the California State University system (CSU), it’s 10,000 students, and in the University of California (UC) it’s 5000 students.) It will also mean a reduction in course selections and counselors, leading to a longer time to obtain a degree, and fewer services for students. All of this said, parents and prospective students should not be discouraged. The figure of 50,000 less spots in community college is out of 2 million students total. There is still plenty of opportunity, plenty of access.

When will the proposal cuts start having an impact on community colleges?

If the cuts are implemented, they will affect enrollment for the 2008-09 school year. These cuts will lower the base from which future budgets are developed. And if the budget crisis persists, things could get even worse. But right now, these are only proposed cuts. In May, the governor will put forward a revised proposal, and in June, the legislature needs to adopt the budget. This puts community colleges in a difficult place for planning next year. They don’t know if they should act based on the proposed cuts.

Is there a chance the cuts won’t be passed by the legislature?

The legislature and the Governor have to negotiate on the budget. That includes Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly and the Senate. Republicans in the legislature tend to oppose any tax increases, while Democrats tend to favor them as one way to close the budget gap. One way or another, they will all agree on a budget, the question will be how deep the cuts will be and whether any new taxes are considered.

How will financial aid programs be affected?

The governor’s budget will keep some students out of the competitive Cal Grant B program—one of the biggest state financial aid programs. The Cal Grant has two parts—an “entitlement” part for recent high school graduates, and a “competitive” part, which tends to be for older students. Some 43,000 community college students get one of these competitive grants right now. One of the things the governor has proposed is that no new students will be eligible for the competitive CalGrant B. This could effect several thousand students.

How are community colleges affected differently from the CSU and UC system?

The governor entered a compact with state universities systems several years ago, basically, a set of agreements where the government cut the budget for them during 2005-6 in exchange for increasing their budgets and capping fee increases in future years—through 2010-11. Community colleges are separate, because they are under prop 98. Prop 98 is a voter-approved ballot measure that sets aside 40 percent of the state budget for k-12 education and community colleges. Within that 40 percent, k-12 gets the bulk of money, and community colleges get their portion. Prop 98 did not specify the share that community colleges would get, but historically, they have tried to get 10-11 percent of the funding. One of the problems is that funding is inconsistent.

How do these cuts affect your organization’s vision of expanding college opportunity to young people throughout the state?

When we began the campaign in 2003, we were struck by the fact that California was 40th in the direct college-going rate for high school grads. Since then, it’s dropped to 48th! The only states worse than us are Vermont and Washington. The state budget is taking us from bad to worse, at a time when California should be expanding the number of students going to college. Instead, we’d be turning more students away.

What students will be left without a spot?

All students can go to the college, register, and then sign up for classes. That is where the problem hits. Usually students with the least flexible schedule will have the hardest time finding sections with open slots. In the past, when slots have gotten scarce, older students tend to stop coming before younger students do.

What legislation are you working on to support higher college enrollment of low-income, immigrant, Latino and African American youth?

This year our main focus is on passing SP890 – the Early Commitment to College bill. SB890 targets low-income and foster care students. It will help them and their parents identify the steps to go to college. If the student can show financial need, and is a California resident by the time they go to college, the state will waive at least two years of the community college fees. These students could receive the Cal Grant if they meet the eligibility requirements (maintaining a certain GPA, and meeting certain income and asset limits). This can make a difference for low-income or first generation college-going students and parents. School districts will be able to choose to participate in the program and students from grades 6-9 would sign a “Save Me A Spot in College” pledge. This legislation is a tool to help students make college a reality. Equally important is the work we have to do to make sure community colleges have the resources they need to serve these students.

California has to take steps to improve students’ chances of succeeding in high school and going on to college. This is supposed to be the “Year of Education,” and this is the type of legislation we need even with a budget crisis.

The Campaign for College Opportunity is accepting applications for the “Save Me A Spot in College” Contest through March 15th. For more information on how 6th to 12th grade students can apply and win a scholarship, go to http://www.collegecampaign.org/contest.

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