The Categorical Saga

Vice President

The past few months have been a challenge for us all on so many levels. As we face unprecedented budget cuts, funding deferrals, and surges in enrollment, we also are getting a glimpse into the politics of it all. It is clear that some of our programs, and some of our student populations, have been deemed not worthy of the state’s resources. And those who care about student success and understand that success requires appropriate and adequate support are likely convinced that student success has been found not worthy. All this at a time when the calls for more degrees and such are louder than ever—perhaps the solution is to automatically grant degrees when students complete 60 units of anything—removing the need for counselors, evaluators, and the like. I can see it now—“California Community Colleges—Your Diploma Mill.” Ah, but I digress—my mission here is to tell the tale of the categoricals—a tragic story, for sure. I’ll start with an aside and then get more focused.

At the start of the summer I participated in a presentation on the state of our colleges—where I bemoaned the California State University (CSUs) and University of California (UCs) desire for “flexibility”. I disparaged the word to such an extent that the other presenters had to apologize each time they used it. For our colleges, limiting money to selected categorical items ensures funding for student support. Why is that so essential? Because counseling, assessment, educational planning, and other matriculation-related functions don’t generate FTEs. Thus, those who have dollars as their primary focus would prefer to use those funds for activities that generate dollars.

While the concept of “flexibility” and an interest in “relief from regulations” is not a new push from our administrators, the systemwide message has not been one of concern for our students. As our budgets are slashed, we are told to focus on basic skills, transfer, and career technical education—with no reminder that support services are needed for us to engage in these missions and maximize student success. The message has none too subtlely encouraged the decimation of some noncredit programs, even those that have the most readily apparent positive impact for the state as a whole. But that is hardly the most alarming element of this saga. The federal government and its American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA) funds were touted as being the answer to the devastating cuts that the state was making to categorical programs. And allowing “flexibility” with respect to certain categorical funding streams was intended to allow local districts to determine where to dedicate their funding.

Much of this was unveiled and explained in detail at the Chancellor’s Office Annual Statewide Budget Workshops. Twelve “categorical” areas were identified as having the “flexibility” option. In reality, only 10 categorical areas really mattered—as two of the line items listed are only technically categoricals (the Academic Senate and Economic Development). Here’s the interesting thing: if you opt to take advantage of your “flex” option, then you are relieved of all reporting mandates that the Chancellor’s Office can remove for those areas. But, if you don’t, all the old rules apply. As I pondered this, someone asked the essential question “So, we have to move $1 in order to have that relief?” The answer was a yes. Note, of course, that money can only be moved out of the designated categorical areas and then into other categoricals.

The rules, or lack thereof, are in effect until 2013. A college could opt to simply move all funds out of one categorical area—but then they would still get dollars for that line item. Apprenticeship is one such area—you could take all those dollars and spend them on matriculation functions—and continue to get funds for that categorical over the next few years.

I really haven’t gotten to the element I find the most bothersome. At the time of this workshop, the stated estimate of the ARRA funds we would be receiving was $130 million. If $130 million in ARRA dollars came to our colleges, various categorical functions were being told that they would be looking at a cut of 32%. And now, here we are, with the final figures in hand—a mere $35 million.

All categoricals have taken a devastating hit—and it is not over. While the amount of ARRA funds being distributed is based on the size of the reductions in the categorical funding streams, there is no mandate, no requirement, not even a suggestion that these funds must go to the categorical areas that they have been based on. If we did our home finances this way we’d all be eating dog food while driving expensive cars. Here’s the qualifier on the document distributed in early October that provides “simulated” allocations—“ARRA State Stabilization funds are displayed broken out by categorical program to show how funding eligibility was determined. Under federal law, ARRA State Stabilization Funds are general purpose.” While it is one thing for Washington to not care about our devastated essential programs, perhaps someone in Sacramento could at least hint that it is no accident that your ARRA dollars are being based on your categorical cuts?

What now? Now it is time for you to be a local advocate. If you don’t know what all of this really means—if “matriculation” is merely a cool sounding word that you find amusing—talk to the people on your campus who engage in these important functions so that you can be a strong advocate for ensuring that your ARRA dollars are allocated as they should be. While we will always have classes and students, which students will we still have when this is all over? And what support services will remain to help them achieve their goals? While we struggle through these hard times, it is imperative to look to the future and ensure that all elements of a properly funded educational institution are intact when some sort of normalcy is restored.