Where is the Money? Financing Community Colleges in California

Michelle Pilati, Vice President

We all have our areas of expertise and interest—and budget is not mine—I am not a budget person. But, when things are as bad as they are now—aren’t we all budget people? I suspect Californians are more aware of the state of the state than they have ever been—I know I found myself rooting for the state’s May revenues to be some unprecedented amount that helps us climb out of our budget hole—although “hole” probably does not adequately express the depth of the problem. Bottomless pit perhaps? And, no matter how you feel about legalizing marijuana, you have to admit that the potential revenue is attractive.

While there is no obvious solution to our current crisis, we need to not only advocate for the dollars we need to survive, we need to also effectively communicate about the complexity of our system. Limiting repeats or withdrawals, cutting specific programs, and/or decreasing the funding for certain courses are not the solutions. Every seemingly simple solution creates new problems. Decreasing the chances for a student to succeed may save a few dollars, but an amount so insignificant that it does not justify the education that such a change may halt. If we want students to succeed at a given course the first time, we need to advise them properly, support them as needed, and not permit them to enroll in courses for which they are not ready. Cutting programs is something colleges do all the time—based on their local needs and priorities. A system-level call to dismantle programs makes no sense. As colleges work to find ways to cut costs, you bet they are going to cut programs that are costly or not attracting students. And cutting costly programs, such as nursing, is contrary to the state’s needs. Furthermore, changing funding for some courses is not going to fix anything—yet another move that has only minimal impact on the dollars spent, but a huge impact on local functioning.

The addition of “flexibility” to our local budgeting has meant the devastation of student support services—and things are expected to get worse. While federal dollars may have helped to fill in some gaps—we don’t have them any more. I bring this up as it is an integral issue or theme whenever we speak to the budget—the struggle that we face—do we serve more students with fewer services, or fewer students with more services? When dollars are tight, what do we opt for—ensuring “access” or ensuring “success”? Inevitably, one has to make choices.

But it is still not that simple. “Access” needs to be defined more completely. Viewing “access” as the chance to take a class is too simplistic. Are we doing students a disservice when we offer them access to courses, but we do not support them in succeeding?

I recently heard a formal name for something that I’ve found myself talking about without a formal name—the iron triangle. The iron triangle is a reference to the interaction of costs, access, and quality. I’d argue that somehow we have to fit success and accountability into this triangle –but I don’t think they have a clearly defined place—perhaps our triangle needs to be in three dimensions and have more sides.

Quality sounds like a euphemism for accountability. I say euphemism because there are many who view accountability as yet another dirty word. Why? Not because there is an interest in being NOT accountable, but due to how the term may be defined and by whom. We’ve seen it defined, in some educational contexts, as a score on a test, but does a test measure the real quality that we would hope for as a consequence of a higher education? I would argue not—we want students to learn to think, not learn to take a test. The fundamental flaw of “no child left behind” is its focus—“no child left untested”. There has to be a better way to measure student progress—one that does not compel teachers to focus on test results as opposed to skill attainment.

In the higher education realm, perhaps it’s simpler? We can measure completions—of courses, of certificates, of degrees. While these may all be well and good as measures of accountability—are they measures of quality? I would argue not—if too great an emphasis is made on such “outcomes”, we are incentivized to pass students and to decrease requirements. We have already seen hints of this elsewhere—the Chancellor of the CSU has suggested that their system cease to require the completion of upper division GE courses and we, the community college system, are constantly criticized for requiring local graduation requirements that generally aim to ensure that a student has cultural competence, information competency, and/or an understanding of the importance of physical activity in maintaining one’s well-being. Pending legislation (SB 1440) even goes so far as to mandate that we develop degrees that do not have these useless “add-ons” (yes, that’s sarcasm).

And success—where does success fit into the mix? If we assume that quality, accountability, and success are all best measured by counting completions and we assume that there will be no incentives to increase metrics by decreasing quality but we put no more money into the system, what are colleges to do? How do you make yourselves look better without spending more and without asking for less from students? It is ever-so-simple—you reduce access. If we are even the tiniest bit selective—if we somehow selectively increased access for those who were more likely to succeed—let’s say high school graduates and those who are able to attend college full-time—we could increase success by all accounts and not increase costs. But, at the same time, what would we be doing? Taking away access from those who need it most.

So my point is that few outside of education really contemplate the complexity of the local choices that have to be made. These are messages we need the public to understand—how can you expect us to do better when we are not funded to do so? As they say, there is no free lunch.

The money for community colleges—for all of higher education—has been declining for some time. We have known for a long time that our funding was not growing as it should and the predicament we are in today is really not a surprise. Our state’s budget process is fundamentally flawed and the public values what we do—yet does not want to pay for it.

Where is the money? If you ask legislators, they don’t know—and may even argue that one can’t pay for higher education at the expense of pulling the plug on grandma. Of course if we don’t fund higher education, the revenues to pay for grandma’s care will continue to decline—but we do not see any interest in budgeting beyond the here and now. Why delay gratification when you face term limits and won’t be around to ultimately see the fruits of your thoughtful planning?

There has to be more money—new money. Where should that money come from? The California Community Colleges have always placed a premium on access—and this can only be achieved by being state-supported public institutions with low fees. The position of Academic Senate is that there should be no fees—a position I have had to argue while students argued for fees to be reasonable and predictable.

If we increase fees, we decrease access. Sure, there may be financial aid available—but until we can guarantee that all who would benefit from such aid are getting it, that is a hollow promise.

We are not where we are today due to local districts running amok—but due to the state’s declining investment. We can’t continue to do more and better with less. Higher education is a public good—the state needs more degree-holders. As the sole access point to education for many of our citizens, the community colleges perform a service and should be funded by the state to continue to do so.

Our competitors today are entities that may invest as much money on marketing as they do on academics and engage in aggressive means to recruit and retain students. And they also lead students to accrue great debt. Such opportunities may do more harm than good—this is not where we want to be.

Should we examine our curriculum and course offerings for “fat”? Should we be identifying ways that we can do better? You bet. But altering what we are and who we serve would do a disservice to our students and the state as a whole.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.