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California's community colleges change their priorities

California University Cuts

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, told lawmakers that budget cuts to the community colleges, have increased class size and made it more difficult for students to get into classes while appearing before a joint Legislative hearing at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

At the California Community Colleges — the world's largest such system with 112 campuses serving about 2.6 million students — only about 54 percent of the students earn a certificate, a degree or transfer to a four-year institution.

That number drops further for students who are African-American (42 percent) or Latino (43 percent).

Here's another stat: Last year 137,000 students were flat-out turned away by the system. They couldn't even get into one course.

Well, no longer. Or that's what the system hopes.

The governing board of the Californa Community Colleges approved a set of reforms (22, to be exact) Monday that aims to streamline the path to student graduation, certification and transfers. Recommendations include prioritizing registration and fee-waivers for students who have declared these education goals.

"The priority system that's in place right now doesn't make sense," says Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications for the system's Chancellor's Office. "What we have is the hobbyist, or a professional in their 40s and 50s, who's taking guitar to have a good time, to learn guitar. There's nothing wrong with that, but they're cutting out a high school graduate who wants to transfer to a CSU."

With budget cuts chopping the open admission system's funding by $770 million since 2009-10, it has been difficult for officials to accommodate all students as it might have done in the past. Officials have had to "ration" education, Feist says.

The Board of Governors approved the 22 recommendations with 11 votes in favor and two abstentions after a four-hour meeting in Sacramento (with the bulk of time going to public comment).

Other recommendations also include developing a common assessment to gauge incoming students' English and math skills and centralize the system's technology to make it more efficient and helpful for students.

The roughly 70-page plan was the product of a year's study by the Student Success Task Force. It now moves on to the Legislature for review.

Some of the recommendations will require statutory changes, but others are changes that the colleges can make on their own, Feist says.

"Whether it's an unemployed worker who's coming back to us for additional training, to be more competitive in the workforce, and that's going to require two or three courses, maybe not a certificate, that's who we're going to give priority to...to people focused on making progress for a certificate, degree and transfer," Feist says.

One small hiccup to the adoption of the recommendations may be if voters don't approve an initiative Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to put on the November ballot to increase taxes. If that happens, Brown's proposed 2012 budget includes mid-year cuts that amount to about $480 million for the system that may complicate some of the pricier reforms, officials said.

Tami Abdollah can be contacted by email and Twitter (@LATams).

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