It’s down. No, it’s up. Then, it’s down again. This pattern describes the recent stock market gyrations, but it also describes the roller coaster ride called the annual California community college budget process. Each year, for a good part of the year, the colleges spend time planning and budgeting around an ever-changing funding amount. The process includes the proposed Governor’s Budget, the May Revision, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office evaluation of the proposed budgets, and, interwoven with official budget proposals, there are rumors, political maneuvering, and trial balloons that colleges and districts must respond to. Having to react to the moving target that is the state budget distracts us from our core mission: providing accessible, high quality instruction. Precious time that could be spent on developing and maintaining an effective learning environment is instead required to monitor the legislative wrangling in Sacramento and the ups and downs of projected revenues within the state.
In stable budgetary environments, the task of enrollment management and funding the student services desperately needed for community college students would be challenging enough, but, in California, with unstable revenues and legislative action on a final higher education budget often slow to materialize, planning for the long term best interests of students is nearly impossible. Decisions are made to chase or cut FTES with the least amount risk and headache, and then we must prepare to do it all over again in just a few months. Critical decisions about the allocation of resources cannot be made primarily on student success because the college is trying to meet deadlines and minimize the work required within this schizophrenic cycle. To promote college success, what colleges really need is a stable budgetary framework, perhaps two or three years where there is little or no volatility in funding, in which to plan for and implement programs for long term student success. When colleges have stable funding over a fixed period of time longer than one year, it will be much easier to implement the student success initiatives the college determines are in the best interests of students and to make progress on the student success goals the state wants us to realize.
With so much recent attention to student success focused on student behaviors and college pathways, we may have missed an opportunity to address the real obstacle to helping students achieve success: a volatile college budgeting process. There has been no shortage of proposals to modify aspects of community college funding to promote student success. Interested parties have suggested alternative fee structures, extension programs, outcomes based funding, and other ways to stimulate or motivate greater student success. However well-intentioned, these proposals miss the basic mark: a stable budgetary framework and funding for the colleges are needed in order to use instructional and human resources effectively to really improve educational outcomes. When every college spends half of each year planning and budgeting according to the volatile state process, little energy and resources are left to implement the goal of improved opportunities for students.
An illustrating example of the volatility that we experience as colleges is the number of course sections offered throughout the California Community College System. Here, in graphical and tabular form, are the increases and decreases in sections offered for the last decade. The swings in the data set mirror the budget ups and downs of past decade1.
Year Sections Offered Change from previous year
2001-2002 398,741 +4.8%
2002-2003 397,098 -0.5%
2003-2004 364,440 -8.0%
2004-2005 379,813 +4.2%
2005-2006 397,112 +4.5%
2006-2007 407,509 +2.6%
2007-2008 421,045 +3.3%
2008-2009 425,625 +1.0%
2009-2010 388,007 -8.8%
2010-2011 365,703 -5.7%
What is especially telling in this data set is that the amount of change each year is very unpredictable. As academic senates know, a swing of only 3% either up or down causes great ripples throughout the institution. Swings greater than 3% produce monumental challenges in hiring, layoffs, student services, sections offered, custodial services, and other vital college functions.
Is it just a dream that stable funding can produce greater student success? Perhaps not. We have a recent funding model, the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI), that illustrates how stability in funding can lead to gains in student achievement. With the BSI, every college received funding that had an expiration date 2-3 years out, and each college received an influx of these funds for several consecutive years. Colleges used the opportunity to learn about or implement new curriculum, useful technologies, and tutoring and supplemental learning options. The faculty engaged in professional development activities across the state and, in some cases, across the nation. Colleges tested alternative strategies and decided which ones might work best with the college culture, cohort needs, and general population. More important, colleges were able to gather data and evidence about the success of the implemented strategies to learn which programs need further development or refinement. The sustained period of learning, development, implementation and evaluation that occurred during BSI produced results that are both encouraging and illuminating.
BASIC SKILLS COURSE SUCCESS RATES
Consider the basic skills success rates shown in the accompanying table. BSI funding arrived at the colleges in the 2006-07 year. At that time, the success rate in basic skills courses had been stagnant for about seven years, always hovering around 58-59%. Over the next few years, from 07-11, the rates improved dramatically. Of course, one should always be cautious about drawing conclusions from a short-term trend in the data, as it might be only a minor fluctuation when the data is viewed over a longer period. Nevertheless, for those statistically minded, the size of the population (e.g., the pool of basic skills students at California community colleges) contributes to the conclusion that the basic skills success rate improved considerably over that time.
Year Basic Skills
There are several possible explanations for the upward trend seen in the data. Course success rates in general were also up across the state; however, no rate increased as dramatically as basic skills course success rates. And, of course, the improvement in general course success rates may be dependent on the greater student success in basic skills courses. From 2008-2011, many colleges reduced the number of part-time faculty, a group who tend to teach a large number of basic skills courses. In order to pick up the slack, this reduction would have required more full-time faculty to teach basic skills courses. The greater availability of full-time faculty (allowing, among other things, greater student access to office hours) may or may not have contributed to the rise in successful course completion. It’s difficult to be certain as data do not exist for the number of full time faculty teaching basic skills courses over this 4 or 5 year time window. And the demographics of students selecting courses during this time period may be different because of the influx of students who would normally be attending CSU or UC but enroll in a California community college because they are unable to be admitted at the four-year university. Typically, however, basic skills courses are sought by only a limited number of university-eligible students.
But the fact that student success in basic skills courses did improve over the very same time period that our colleges were receiving stable funding and structural support through BSI seems to suggest that there is some important link between the two. Further, if colleges could have improved basic skills success rates without stable funding, planning, and implementation, then we would have seen some evidence of it earlier in the history of the system. Once the colleges had time to plan and to budget for and realize the plan, we observed an increase in student success rates in basic skills courses. From regional meetings and reports from the colleges, we do know that BSI funding has led to an increase in the quantity and quality of professional development. Stable BSI funding has allowed colleges to develop learning labs, implement local basic skills improvement initiatives, and to attend regional meetings in order to share and learn about best practices in basic skills instruction. All of these efforts were enabled by a stable funding framework that allowed a college to plan and focus on the needs of basic skills students. Given that the BSI funding continues today with the same parameters for spending within three years of the allocation, it is reasonable to predict that basic skills course success rates should continue to increase.
Legislative action that funds the colleges in a reliable and predictable way from year to year has great potential, perhaps even the greatest potential, to positively impact student success. Just like the arguments calling for student fee increases to be predictably scheduled, college funding from the state must also be stabilized to reduce the extra planning and budgeting resources that colleges are required to dedicate because of the wild decision making that often accompanies the erratic swings in funding for districts. Because a change of even 3% (up or down) is huge for a college to manage, the system could argue for smaller, more realistic changes. Such changes could be built into the system budgets, gradually implemented over a period of years rather than sharply, all at once. State government in Sacramento has a difficult time arriving at a final budget, much less one with a long-term perspective, but if the goal is to improve student success, then all avenues and options should be on the table for consideration. Stable, multi-year community college funding has the potential to make a huge difference in student success.
1 All data included in this article were provided to the Board of Governors at the September 2011 meeting by Patrick Perry, Vice Chancellor of Technology, Research and Information Systems. Analysis by the Academic Senate.