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California Community Colleges head: 'Go in and make your case'

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott talks to students about the impact of the state's budget crisis on the nation's largest higher education system.
California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott talks to students about the impact of the state's budget crisis on the nation's largest higher education system.
Tami Abdollah / KPCC

At a Pasadena City College town hall meeting today the head of the California Community Colleges spoke to about 250 students about the state's budget crisis and the "desperate situations" it has created for schools in the nation's largest higher education system.

The hour-long meeting with Chancellor Jack Scott covered a wide range of issues and seemed rather intimate despite its setting in the campus' Sexson Auditorium. With his warm Texan drawl and anecdotes, Scott tried to illustrate to students the importance of passing the tax initiative in November; how they should lobby to improve their education system; and the impact funding cuts have had on public education throughout the state.

A former legislator for 12 years,  Scott urged students to to talk to their legislators and tell them what's going on in their schools. "Go to your legislators, and by the way, when a legislator says to you 'Oh, I love the community colleges and so forth, ask him or her how they voted on raising taxes...How about some money?"

He added: "Don't get belligerent or harsh and try to occupy his or her office, but go in and make your case."

The system's 112 campuses serve about 2.6 million students statewide; it is the nation's largest higher education system. Since 2009-10, that 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 it has since lost about 286,000 students.

As a result, course offerings have had to be cut even as demand has grown. Class sizes have increased, but lack of state funding has meant many are turned away. Last year 137,000 students could not get into a single course.

"They come in, they’re admitted, but there are no classes," Scott said. "They want that basic English, basic math, all that, chemistry, history courses. And it's full."

Scott was in Long Beach Wednesday and in Northern California last weekend talking with officials at colleges about their budgets.

"The tale of woe is the same, that is, community colleges are experiencing great difficulty," Scott said. "Well, how do they cope with that?...We can try to make some cuts in things like maintenance...but the reality is, our biggest expense is personnel. We're a people business, and 85 percent of most community colleges' budgets have to do with paying personnel."

And unlike the California State University or University of California systems, fees for community colleges are set by the Legislature at $36 per unit. The fee will go up to $46 per unit in the summer. Those fees are sent directly back to Sacramento.

During his tenure, Scott has worked hard to streamline the pathway to graduation, certification and transfers at community colleges. He helped pass SB 1440, a new law that simplifies that transfer process. He spoke about that today in light of the recent news from the CSU system this week. Officials announced they will freeze the majority of its spring 2013 enrollment only allowing certain transfer students on eight campuses, because of massive cuts to state funding.

Those students that will still be accepted fall under SB 1440 — CSU officials estimate they number in the hundreds (compared to the 18,000 typically accepted). The new law guarantees their admission into the CSU if they fulfill certain criteria.

"They're not doing that [freeze] out of spite," Scott told students. "They're doing that because of that increasing crunching reduction of resources...I understand the plight of CSU, but I have to say it's going to hurt our students, because if you want to transfer in spring 2013, you may have to put it off until fall 2013."

Like the CSU officials, Scott said he is counting on the tax initiative in November to pass.

"I'll be very supportive of that tax initiative," said Scott to loud applause. "Because it will mean three or $400 million more for community colleges, and may mean, if it doesn't pass, another big cut for community colleges."

Scott said that if the tax initiative does not get approved by voters, the system could see an additional $200 million cut, but if it does pass it could see up to $400 million in extra funding.

"Taxes are the price of civilization," Scott said. "We may not be spending all the money as we should be spending, and I'll be a critic as much as anybody else. But the reality is, it does take resources to do things....The idea that some way or another we can just simply turn our back and not pay for things, it's not that way folks."

Scott credited many of the succeses in California, including the boom of Silicon Valley, to the state's investment in higher education over the years, and he reflected on how that had changed.

"It's sad to think that we're looking at a group of students who are thirsty for higher education, all of which would enrich their life and enrich the economy of California, and because of a lack of state resources, we're having to limit it," Scott said.

"It's hard to measure the longterm effect, what does it mean to somebody who tries to enroll in Cal State LA...and they never get to go to college? That is a real deprivation. I can simply say that even though my role is as chancellor of the Community Colleges, that's for whom I speak, I'm just as distressed about what's happening to California State University and the University of California."

Though Scott has announced he will retire Sept. 1, he says he will continue to "go down the halls of the Capitol" and tell them what is happening to the community colleges. Scott said he has met with legislators, the director of finance and the governor's aides to highlight what is happening. "We're seeing what I call a death by a thousand cuts," Scott said. "But that's not a good way for the state of California."

He urged students to vote to save their education system, and to not give up. "Your education is your key to mobility," Scott said. He said all the studies indicate the more educated your are the better you do in nearly every aspect of your life.

"Sometimes speaking to a high school group I'll say to them, 'How would you like to earn a million dollars?' and generally they perk up then," Scott said. "I'll say, 'That's the difference in the lifetime earnings between someone with only a high school diploma and someone with a college degree.' "

The community college system remains open to all comers, and Scott said he didn't think that would or should change. "That's the jewel of this system," Scott said. "If you're a high school graduate, regardless of what you're grades were like in high school" you can go to a community college.

"I often say, University of California takes the top 12 percent, CSU the top 33 percent, we take the top 100 percent," Scott said. "We're still going to do that."

Scott also repeatedly derided the fact that the state spent so much on corrections and continued to cut education. As a legislator, he said he wanted to look at changing the three strikes rule to cut down on such spending, but legislators did not want to be viewed as soft on crime. ("Legislators are just average people, some of them you have great admiration for, some of them you don't," he said.)

"Sometimes I think we’re more interested in prison stripes than graduation gowns," Scott said. But "folks when you put somebody away for a long time it costs lots of money..."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).