California Community Colleges system wanes even as demand grows

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The gargantuan California Community Colleges system is one of superlatives: It's the largest system of higher education in the world and the largest provider of workforce training in the country. About one in four community college students across the nation graduate from the California system. Yet, even as its classes are in greater demand, with many seeking new training in a difficult economy, its services are shrinking.

The system is open admission. It has 112 campuses statewide that serve about 2.6 million students. And as the economy has soured and the war in Iraq has wound down, it has found itself with growing enrollment numbers.

Returning veterans have sought out their campuses for civilian training in various occupations and the unemployed have turned to the schools to learn new fields; students shut out of the Cal State University and University of California systems because of budget cuts and tuition increases have turned to their campuses as a starting point for a later transfer.

And yet, like all public education in California, it has faced deep cuts over the last couple years.

“The unfortunate thing is, when our services are most desired, when people want to come back to school, retrain themselves for the economy, that’s when our services get cut,” said Dan Troy, vice chancellor for fiscal policy at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Since 2009-10, the system has been hit by about $770 million in reductions, nearly 13 percent of its $6 billion budget. During the 2008-9 academic year, the system served 2.89 million students, but has since lost about 286,000 students, according to Paige Marlatt-Dorr, spokeswoman for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

“They just arrive on campuses in droves, and the classes are full, the waiting lists are long, and they can’t get in,” Marlatt-Dorr said.

Depending on whether voters approve his initiative for the November ballot, Gov. Jerry Brown’s unveiled budget proposal for 2012-13 would provide for an increase in public education funding.

If it passes, the system would gain about $400 million, with funding increases each year after. If his ballot proposal fails, the system would lose about $480 million, Troy said.

“Clearly our budget looks a lot better with the revenue package than without it,” he said. “So we’re definitely going to be on pins and needles hoping that it passes.”

This will be the second year the system may have to deal with potential mid-year reductions or so-called trigger cuts — reductions “triggered” because of lower than expected tax revenues.

The 2011-12 budget year’s trigger cut cost the system $102 million in funding, Marlatt-Dorr said.

To deal with the cuts, campuses have reduced core sections by up to 15 percent, increased class sizes, cut support services, laid off staff, and increased fees, among other methods, system officials said.

Since the 2007-8 academic year, the system’s spending per student has decreased by 10.6 percent while unit fees have risen by nearly 80 percent, according to figures on its website.

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

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