For two weeks before the start of the spring term in February, Santa Monica College ran a 60-second radio commercial aimed at prospective students. "Now you can attend Santa Monica College regardless of where you live," the ad said.
Apparently, the message hit home--and beyond. The Westside campus enrolled 19,000 students, 7% more than last spring. Nearly 10,000 are residents of the Los Angeles Community College District.
The enrollment increase is good news for Santa Monica but not so good for Los Angeles, which lost 25,000 students to other districts last year. Enrollment at its nine campuses has dropped 30% in the last two years.
During this period, Los Angeles community college officials decided to stop enforcing enrollment boundaries, believing that a free flow of students among districts would save Los Angeles the administrative costs of issuing transfer permits. They thought that the unrestricted movement of students among districts would balance itself out.
But last August they realized they had made a mistake. According to Los Angeles district records, 25,000 urban students were crossing district boundaries to attend the outlying colleges, while only 6,000 suburban students were flowing back into Los Angeles colleges.
Shocked by those figures, officials in the beleaguered Los Angeles district notified the suburban colleges four days before the start of the fall term that the outlying schools could no longer accept Los Angeles residents.
Only Long Beach and Santa Monica were not affected. Long Beach has a continuing agreement allowing it to enroll only a few hundred Los Angeles residents, while Santa Monica, which attracts the lion's share of Los Angeles' outflow, has been aided since 1981 by special legislation that permits it to accept the equivalent of up to 5,000 full-time students from the Los Angeles district.
But the legislation expires in July, 1986, and Santa Monica College officials have not been able to get an extension. They have joined administrators at other suburban colleges to push for a statewide "free flow" policy, arguing that such a rule would benefit all community college students.
Among the campuses in the Los Angeles district that have been hit hardest by falling enrollment is West Los Angeles College, which competes with Santa Monica for the Westside's junior college prospects. Nestled in the hills above Culver City, it enrolled only 6,400 students this spring, a 22% drop from last year. Enrollment has steadily declined since 1980, when the school had close to 12,000 students.
President Jack M. Fujimoto said his enrollment is "getting close" to bottoming out. He blamed the decline on a number of factors, including the $50 registration fee imposed by all community colleges last fall.
But he also said the college has had difficulty overcoming an "image problem." He said many residents of the surrounding communities don't know they have a college so close to home. Or, because of the college's mostly minority enrollment, they think it has the drug and crime problems often associated with inner-city schools. "Once people come to school here, they find it isn't like that all," Fujimoto said.
Large Travel Program
Many potential students also are unaware of the school's strengths, the college president said.
The college offers the largest travel program in the country, covering aspects of the industry ranging from domestic airline ticketing to travel agency ethics and law, he said. It is the only community college in the Los Angeles district with programs in dental hygiene and aircraft electronics and production, he added.
But the school lacks a complete gymnasium and has no student center. "That is a problem," Fujimoto said.
In contrast, Santa Monica has more facilities and is strongly geared toward transferring students to four-year colleges. According to spokeswoman Jeannette Hartman, Santa Monica College students who successfully complete special transfer programs are guaranteed admission to UCLA and California State University, Northridge.
A 1983 study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission showed that Santa Monica sent 214 students to the University of California and 395 to state colleges. West Los Angeles College transferred 37 students to the UC system and 166 to state colleges. The study was based on 1981 enrollment figures, when Santa Monica College had 18,000 students and West Los Angeles had 11,000.
Santa Monica College also has more money to spread the word about itself.
The college spent $16,000 on radio and newspaper advertising for the spring term alone, Hartman said. West Los Angeles College cannot match that spending power. "One ad for one day would have blown our whole budget," said Joel Recinos, assistant to the president. No district funds were spent on advertising for the spring term, either, spokesman Norman Schneider said, although the college district did spend $200,000 on a major media campaign last summer.
Those deficiencies make competing with Santa Monica College difficult at best, Fujimoto said.
From the students' point of view, the reasons for choosing Santa Monica College over any of Los Angeles' nine campuses are simple and persuasive.
Nuala O'Donnell, a 22-year-old Culver City resident studying respiratory therapy, said that she considered West Los Angeles College but that Santa Monica is stronger academically. "I'm going to transfer to UCLA, so I feel I'm getting better preparation here," she said.
Diana Flores, a 19-year-old business major, lives near Los Angeles City College, an inner-city campus that is the oldest in the district. But she said she "didn't enjoy the surroundings" and feels safer at the Westside school.
All of the students interviewed said they would not want to be forced to attend a college in their home district. "You should be able to go to school where you want," said Sean Rogers, 18, who lives in West Los Angeles.
Santa Monica College president Richard L. Moore couldn't agree more.
"I think we're headed for free flow. . . . I think we are headed for the place where adults can choose where they want to go for higher education," he said.
But Kenneth Washington, vice chancellor of the Los Angeles district, said that personal freedom is not the only issue to consider in the free-flow debate.
"The state still looks upon the various districts as districts," he said. "We are funded on the basis of the number of students who come to our district. So when we allow students to go outside our district, a number of things happen. There are fewer students remaining, fewer dollars to spend and fewer programs to serve the students who are left.
"Losing 20,000 students a year has seriously, adversely affected what is available for students remaining in Los Angeles."
Although Moore said he does not doubt that the educational programs in Los Angeles colleges have suffered, he said the argument shows "backward reasoning."
"People say that if one college is hurt because of free flow, then of course we should not do it. But there's something wrong with that. It means the college or the district is more important than the people.
"You can't force somebody to stay (in the district) in order to help somebody that's left," he added. "That is a highfalutin form of arrogance. It suggests that human beings are pawns in some bureaucracy. It's like saying, 'I own my students.' "
Los Angeles officials also argue that free flow encourages white flight from the district to Santa Monica. According to Los Angeles district figures, 70% of the 10,000 city residents attending Santa Monica College are white. Washington says that figure is greater than the percentage of whites living in the Westside communities that supply students to Santa Monica and West Los Angeles colleges. According to the 1980 census, the Westside is 55% Anglo, 30% black, 10% Latino and 5% Asian.
Santa Monica College's overall enrollment is 66% Anglo and 34% minority, compared to West Los Angeles College which is 53% black, 6% Asian, 6% Latino and 30% Anglo.
So white flight "is a concern," Washington said. And it is not happening just on the Westside but throughout the district, he added.
He said that minorities are leaving the district, too, but not in the same numbers as white residents.
Santa Monica's Moore said that free flow does not contribute to white flight. Citing enrollment figures that show a gradual rise in the college's minority representation, from 29% in 1982 to 34% in 1984, he said: "Blacks have increased at this college with free flow. Hispanics have increased with free flow. So it's not a white-flight argument." He believes that if Los Angeles were to impose the same attendance restrictions on Santa Monica as it has on other suburban districts, minorities would be placed at a disadvantage.
"You're going to lock up all the minority people in the city of Los Angeles," Moore said. "To tell a minority group you can't get out, you belong to the inner-city schools, that's a Class I affirmative action lawsuit."
The college has more than philosophical concerns at risk, however. The state pays the college $2,137 for every full-time student it enrolls, regardless of the student's home address. According to an elaborate formula established by the state that calculates attendance in terms of class hours, the 10,000 Los Angeles residents enrolled in Santa Monica are equal to 5,000 full-time students. That translates into $10.6 million in state aid, a substantial chunk of the college's $27-million budget.
Could Be Worse
Without the Los Angeles students, Moore admits, the college "would be in a far worse position than Los Angeles is in today."
The college's dependence on Los Angeles students and the revenue they bring has not helped to promote stability. At least twice in the years before the special legislation was passed, the Los Angeles district canceled its attendance agreement, forcing Santa Monica to send termination notices to as many as 200 faculty members and administrators.
So in 1981 college officials approached then-Assemblyman Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica). He agreed to sponsor the legislation that enabled the college to enroll the equivalent of 5,000 full-time students from Los Angeles. The law went into effect on July 1, 1981, and will expire on June 30, 1986.
Last year, Santa Monica officials tried to push through a one-year extension with the help of Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), an alumnus of the college. However, when Los Angeles district officials got wind of the scheme, they lobbied Katz to drop it. He did.
Now Santa Monica is pinning its hopes on legislation proposed by state Sen. Robert Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach) and Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-Redlands), who have introduced bills calling for a statewide free-flow policy for community college students.
The Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges recently voted to support free flow, except in cases where a college would suffer "irreparable damage" by a sudden loss of students.
The governors hope to amend the bills to include a proposal providing that, in cases where a sudden outflow of students may threaten the viability of a college, the college could appeal to the board, which could vote to restrict transfers.
Most Santa Monica students interviewed said they hope a free-flow policy is established. But some, like 22-year-old Linda Berger, said they are prepared to take steps to preserve their right of free choice should Los Angeles college district officials prevail and boundary restrictions are imposed.
"I would just use somebody else's address," she said.