Access? To What?


Among the principle values California community college faculty hold dear is ACCESS as a tenet for the education and services we offer to California residents. Concepts of access also apply to hiring of faculty, staff and administrators: do our workplaces reflect, like a microcosm of our state, the diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, and abilities that characterize our society? But the remarkable inclusiveness of the 1960 Master Plan, with its efforts to address the needs of a broad range of potential students "who could benefit from instruction," seems to be undergoing a systematic reconsideration. Though lip service is paid to retaining access, I hear my mother's refrain: "actions speak louder than words."

Most especially over the last 40 years, community colleges have accepted students who, as immigrants, wished to acquire functional language skills necessary for citizenship, or those who initially needed basic skills education to contribute to California's economy, or older adult students who saw their continuing education as a mechanism for ongoing personal and public health, or a variety of employed individuals for whom occupational education courses-either individually or as a program-would ensure their hold on their career ladder. And, of course, we continued to nurture the educational aspirations of those students intending to transfer-and more compassionately, those students who may not initially have held those aspirations but who, under our collective nurturing, acquired their baccalaureate degrees. To all these students, we guaranteed a quality education.

In Sacramento, however, there is an undercurrent that while these have been noble intentions, they may not be as relevant when measured against current budgetary constraints. Legislators and politicians who struggle with a projected structural state budget deficit of $8-20 billion next year and continued smaller deficits for an extended period of time may need to be convinced anew that access is good for the economy and fulfills the long-standing promise to educate all our citizens without charge. To begin, we will ask questions such as those appearing in the list accompanying this article. In the end, we must be able to explain what constitutes access-to our institutions, within our institutions, and outside of our institutions.

Keeping the Door Open: Who Should Fund Access?

Increasingly we hear comments that students and their families must assume their "fair share" of the cost of education. Setting aside disagreements about what exactly constitutes their "fair share," this argument buries two common misapprehensions about the majority of our students. First, many of our students are single parents with families of their own or returning adults well beyond the sphere of influence of their parents. Of little concern to critics is the fact that the average age of our students is 25 (well past the age of parental consent or students' ability to track down those parental signatures required on financial aid forms). Second, many of students-particularly first-generation college students-are less sophisticated about negotiating the system and are easily discouraged: if the total cost of fees is beyond what they have in hand, or if they are forced to choose between paying fees and purchasing food for their children that day, they may well walk away; if they experience sticker shock at the tally of their textbooks, they may walk away; if a delay in their Pell grant or BoG Waiver means they are without textbooks for the first few weeks, they may walk away; if they encounter long lines (now often exacerbated by reductions in full-time and part-time staff), they may well walk away; and if they discover long wait lists and crowded classrooms, they may walk away. What remains to be seen is whether they will ever return; announcing that these vulnerable and apprehensive students are not contributing their "fair share" is not likely to encourage their return and their future contributions to California's economic welfare.

Legislators and critics also commonly espouse the "high fee/high aid" approach to funding post-secondary education, despite the warnings of our counselors, our alumni, and even Diana Fuentes-Michel, Executive Director of the California Student Aid Commission. These experts tell us that many of our students find the questions of the multi-page FAFSA form culturally troublesome; that students are reluctant to seek personal assistance in financial aid offices-particularly when the financial aid staff are fellow students. Many of our students are so traumatized by the "high fee" element of the equation that they are unable to contemplate the "high aid" that may-or from their perspective, may not-be available to them.

During the midnight hours of 2003-04 budget negotiations, Assembly members were alarmed by our arguments that historically, higher fees coupled with revenue declines, resulted in a demonstrable decrease in broad access for many populations of students. Echoing the popular sentiment that higher fees call for higher aid, Senate members raised fees beyond even the Board recommended $15 level, and then attempted to compensate by shifting $38 million from PFE to student financial aid efforts at the state and local levels. As I noted in our August 2003 Update, this effort arrives as too little and far too late: if past behaviors are any indication, those students discouraged in August and September by escalating fees will not return.

The "high fee/high aid" approach also shifts some of the responsibility for access to the federal government or the private sector and doesn't account for the responsibility the state has for educating its populace. The argument we faculty make is that the state must assume responsibility for providing the equitable funding of access it has promised to post-secondary education. However, we know what has happened to those promises: program-based funding has never been fully funded; program improvement funds have evaporated; our Partnership agreement is not supported; and seldom have we seen our fair share of the Prop 98 split, statutorily set at 10.93%. No wonder, then, at the September Consultation/Board retreat arose the cry for legislators and the Governor to "Honor the Law."

Finally, in searching for still other ways to fund public post-secondary education, the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, chaired by Carol Liu, is currently entertaining alternative approaches to funding: Among the strategies being bandied about-in her committee and elsewhere- are these proposals:

decoupling ourselves from K-12 and the Prop 98 funding mechanism;
pushing forward on the nearly-successful 2003 efforts to secure property tax backfill; and
instituting the Australian pay-as-you-go model, in which students would be asked to repay the state through their subsequent lifetime income.

For the past 30 years, the Legislature's FTES funding for California's community colleges has generally remained well below the national average. In 2002-03, FTES funding was $4321; factoring in the unfunded FTES, running about 3% of our total FTES, that figure drops to $41911; compare that figure with either that 1998-99 national average of $6300,2 or the $6500 goal set forth in the system's Strategic Plan for 2005. The argument is sometimes made that as a trade-off for access, California has agreed that sub-par FTES funding is acceptable: we'll accept less in taxpayer money because we want to serve more students. I disagree with this logic-and so do other members of the Consultation Council and the Board of Governors who, at their September 18-19 joint retreat, determined that the Real Cost of Education document and its proposed $9200 per community college FTES shall be the foundation for our system's 2004-05 budget requests and justifications. To serve more, we deserve more.

California's voters, through Proposition 98, in their approval of bond measures, and in commendatory public editorials, have repeatedly spoken in defense of local colleges. The Sacramento "march in March" made broad student support visible. Perhaps it is time again to ask California's citizens: Do we continue to value access as a principle? At what level? To what ends? At what cost-and to whom?

The State's Funding/Programmatic Dance
The Academic Senate recognizes that the state, in providing the bulk of our funding, may choose to exercise what it sees as its public obligation to specify priorities for our funding. Within the past few years, however, legislation has overtly linked Sacramento's stated priorities with the funding necessary to fund our colleges and universities. Indeed, Assembly woman Liu, in a recent memorandum3, argued that we must "better align the financing mechanism with state goals and priorities for higher education." She also notes that we "need to move away from the traditional indicators of quality that focus on input measures and begin to focus more on student learning outcomes." The direction is clear and perhaps the conclusions predetermined as she raises the questions that will drive the Committee's November 18th and December 9th hearings: "What revisions should be made in the community college funding mechanism? What are the Committee's recommendations regarding the funding mechanism and strategies to promote greater productivity?" (emphasis mine).

Additionally, state legislation to further the 2002 Master Plan for Education objectives appears to erode the bilateral agreements between the Board of Governors and your boards of trustees, attempting to shift even curricular decisions to the state level. Even more significant, however, is the effort of some legislators to redefine the essential mission(s) of the community colleges. Our Academic Senate resolutions reflect long-standing support for the right of local faculty, in response to locally-expressed needs, to determine local curriculum and support programs, confirmed by locally elected boards of trustees who consider their local missions as well. Thus, we will continue to work with proponents of enabling Master Plan legislation, and we urge local senates to work with their college constituencies, raising objections to legislative efforts that diminish the role of local senates or unilaterally curtail the missions of local colleges.

These efforts to refocus our mission or shift responsibilities beyond the local level have implications for subsequent funding of quality education. Several years ago, for example, the Legislature declared its intent to fund only university-level research projects that reflected "state priorities." Yet state funding of research at UC and CSU is only a tiny percentage of their total funding in that category. Similarly, state funding covers less than 30% of the cost of UC students' education; on the other hand, most community colleges rely almost wholly on general funding provided by the state. UC and CSU continue to have access to outside resources beyond state funding to support research or programs those institutions believe worthy of support, regardless of "state priorities." Not so for the community colleges: threats to withhold our funding may have dramatic statewide repercussions as colleges scramble to respond to these external pressures on curricular offerings.

The 2003-04 Budget Act Language goes one step further-perhaps tottering down a very slippery slope: the Board of Governors must, by early 2004, report to the Legislature our system's plan for allocating funding to the priorities the Legislature has prescribed. Presently that request is limited to system allocations. How soon before individual districts or colleges will be asked to conform their offerings to comply with the state's priorities? The California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) offers salient critiques of the current financing mechanisms, concluding that "the financing structure of the California community colleges fails to provide adequate support for the programs the colleges are required to offer and fails to provide any mechanism to assist the colleges in addressing the unique needs of their community."4 The report, however, goes on to urge the state to consider these mechanisms for refocusing on "productivity and efficiency"5:

decreasing funding for lower priority higher education activities;
reducing duplication in academic program offerings; or
shortening time to degree through decreasing course requirements.

It thus appears that the state's budget crisis will drive our academic planning rather than, as the Academic Senate maintains, planning drive budget.

The Programmatic Consequences at the Local Level
This fall's plenary session will afford us an opportunity to explore the ramifications these statewide efforts have on access at our individual colleges: how are decisions being made? Who makes them? Is programmatic coherence being sacrificed in the name of cost containment? Are programs being suspended or discontinued without faculty discussion about alternatives? Are crucial general education offerings being curtailed, though doing so jeopardizes our students' ability to transfer? Are colleges pinning false hopes on technology mediated instruction-when the absence of funding for the Tech II plan and other technology initiatives makes web hosting and hardware and software purchases exceptionally difficult? How do we retain instructional quality for our students in the face of budget reductions and others' priorities?

We will reconsider commitment to access in its broadest sense, examining which students have access to our institutions and when, and we will consider what might await them upon completion of their educational objectives. Over these components we have little control, though we will strive to increase our influence with the system, with partners in the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates, and within the political arena.

On the other hand, we have considerably more self-determination over the access to education and services we provide once students enter our doors. What we make available to them upon their arrival-how we retain rigor and challenge, how we offer breadth and depth, how we conserve resources for the most vulnerable, how we guard our cherished principles in this newly recycled reality will call upon us to redefine for others the access we believe is essential-before, during, and after students' presence on our campuses.

While we will consider some of these questions at the fall session, faculty will want to raise these and other inquiries on their local campuses and ponder their ramifications for all our students.

Can we Keep the Doors Open?
Will the Chancellor's Office research demonstrate a continued decline in student enrollment? Does the decline occur within particular populations of students?

Will the Legislature continue to increase fees annually in a manner neither predictable, gradual, nor moderate? Will additional fees on materials or services now being proposed by others in our system simply be perceived as prohibitive? Will those students unable to afford rising fees return? Will our traditional students be supplanted by CSU- or UC-eligible students who find community colleges more affordable? Or might our students be more frequently supplanted by CSU students needing remediation?

To what might entering students have access?
Will entering students, standing at the threshold of education, have access to student services we see as essential to student retention and success-matriculation services, assessment and academic planning, full personal and academic counseling services?

Will cuts in counseling services or administrative reluctance to hire new counselors result in diminished opportunities for students to make reasonable, rigorous academic plans?

Do changes in hours of availability-of counselors, financial aid officers, registrars, EOPS/DSPS services-continue to meet the needs of evening or weekend students? Will those students have equal access to the full range of services to which they are entitled?

How will students' access be affected by efforts to "outsource" academic advisement to private, off-campus, on-line groups whose employees are not hired through the district's hiring procedures and who may not meet minimum qualifications?

Can our libraries continue to support the current academic and business needs of our communities? Will libraries and resource centers be able to provide scholarly journals, new books, adequate and up-to-the minute software required by the general public, by students entering the workplace or hoping to transfer? Will the library resources offer experiences comparable to those available at other public post-secondary institutions?

As our library faculty retire or are not rehired, will students and faculty find the support they need to conduct research and to demonstrate information competency?

Once admitted, can students-new and continuing-select from a full range of classes? Do they have access only to a few sections of courses most likely to fill, perhaps at times and locations inaccessible?

Will most sections be filled, requiring long wait lists and a persistence unknown to many of our students?

Will courses, especially those less likely to fill to capacity, be cancelled-despite their importance to a student's certificate, to an employer's need, or to a UC/CSU general education certification?

Will students who must complete 60 units and, increasingly, their major preparation requirements prior to transfer, be able to do so when courses offering are curtailed?

Has the faculty at each college been intimately involved with discussions about class cancellations or local program discontinuance or suspension? Has the local senate adopted a process that accords with the Title 5 requirements for notification in the event of program discontinuance? Have students been involved as well? Is, in this local instance, budget driving planning? Or is planning driving budget?

Do full-time faculty now assume larger class sizes and have less time for curricular innovation, for sponsorship of student activities, for professional development, and for the full range of participatory governance activities?

What awaits students once they complete their academic goals?
Will UC and CSU continue to limit transfer admissions in the coming terms? Will individual compacted campuses or majors institute additional barriers or regional restrictions?

In this grim economic period, will our students secure a hold on their career ladders?

Will students who are unsuccessful in moving on remain at our colleges, competing with Tidal Wave II students for our ever-decreasing offerings?

What, in the long term, will "access" come to mean for Californians?

1 Thomas J. Nussbaum. "California's Investment in Public Education: A Look at the Past Three Decades," September 2003, pp. 22-23.
2 Nussbaum, p. 24.
3 Carol Liu. Memorandum Re: Committee Hearing Schedule, September 25, 2003, sent to "Participants in the Assembly Higher Education Committee Hearing on September 23, 2003."
4 California Postsecondary Education Commission. "California Higher Education Finance: Understanding the Challenge," Assembly Higher Education Committee Hearing, September 23, 2003, p. 3.
5 California Postsecondary Education Commission, p. 4.