Three years ago, the California Legislature said when the community colleges cut courses, they shouldn't cut courses involving transfer, career technical education, and basic skills, State Community College Chancellor Jack Scott said in a phone interview.
Scott is responsible for overseeing all 112 community colleges in California, a quarter of all community colleges in the country. He's on the cusp of retirement, and the end of his tenure has been marked with the changing mission of the colleges he oversees.
"I want it clearly understood that I personally want to see the community colleges offer all the classes it wants to," he said. "But with scarcity, you have to prioritize. If you offer the same classes you did before, you'll go bankrupt. Something has to give."
The state agreed and asked community colleges to prioritize enrollment, with a focus on recent high school graduates who plan to transfer to a university in two years and anyone else seeking a degree or certificate.
If community colleges can't afford to offer classes sought by their broader communities, and K-12 schools are ill-equipped to plug back into that task, does the notion of continuing adult education just fade away?
David Plank, executive director of policy analysis for California Education, a Stanford University-based research center, says it just may: "I don't think that responsibility will be reimposed on K-12 districts because it was always seen as a sort of add-on supplementary responsibility."
BUDGET WOES TRICKLE DOWN
California's Master Plan for Higher Education — which mandates that community colleges provide classes for everyone — only worked as long as there was money to fund it. But Plank says that money has been steadily shrinking since 1978 when voters passed Proposition 13, which capped property tax increases and raised the voting threshold for the Legislature to increase other taxes.
As funding from Sacramento has been slashed by more than $500 million in the past year alone, California's 112 community colleges have turned away more than 300,000 students trying to enter the system. If Governor Jerry Brown's tax proposal wins in November, community college funding will stay at about the same level, but if it fails, the system will see further cuts of more than $340 million.
"The system now is breaking down," Plank said. "We've finally reached a point where the state's share is too small to hold things together. We see tuition going up at very rapid rates and a substantial deterioration both in access and affordability."
In flush times, community colleges could serve everyone — rich and poor, those seeking new skills and others working toward a new degree. Now, the community college system faces two choices if it's unable to find new sources of revenue: continue on the path of deep cuts, or change its priorities altogether.
City College Board member Steve Ngo cites new statistics that show enrollment in English as Second Language (ESL) classes are trending down, a sign that those classes should be cut first. "The community should lead. If the demand is down, you're not serving your community," he said.
Yet others say community colleges should strive to serve everyone who needs them.
"Some [classes] are really valued by our Pacific Islander population, but their enrollment may not be as high. Should those classes go away? I don't think so. It's something I feel like the whole college community needs to come to grips with" CCSF math instructor Hal Hunstman said.
City College ESL instructor Susan Lopez said her classes have been cut about 29 percent over a decade, which she considers drastic.