Status Quo Funding Tightens Squeeze on Colleges : Finances: The budget emerging from Sacramento may mirror last year’s, but it magnifies problems the schools have suffered recently.
Northern Los Angeles County’s community colleges deliberately used status quo budgets to plan for the fall semester and the status quo was just what they got from Sacramento.
Lawmakers over the weekend approved a spending package for the state’s 107 two-year colleges that provided a 2% increase, allowing the schools no funds to grow.
“The intent is to keep us at the same level of funding,” said state Community Colleges Vice Chancellor Gus Guichard. “On a need to provide access to more students, it’s not good. We have literally thousands of students trying to get in classes who can’t.”
The financial package may have mirrored last year’s budget, but the impact of that package magnified problems that the five colleges in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, Antelope valleys had experienced in years past.
The Legislature doubled student fees from $6 to $12 a unit and, for the first time, imposed fees of $50 a unit on students with bachelor’s degrees or more.
As lawmakers grappled with the state budget in Sacramento last week, the region’s community colleges--from Antelope Valley to Mission--opened for the fall semester amid uncertainties. They had not officially adopted budgets yet.
Thousands of students were turned away from classes, already cut back in previous years to what college officials described as the bare essentials. Thousands more were on waiting lists for already filled classes.
At Valley College in Van Nuys, for example, about 24,000 students tried to enroll, but only 17,000 had gotten classes of any kind so far.
Most classes that were offered were crowded and, in many cases, students sat on the floor because no chairs were available. Especially popular were vocational programs--often filled by people laid off in the recession--and classes required to transfer to four-year schools, all of which filled up almost immediately.
“This is totally against what community colleges are supposed to stand for,” said Mission College student Cristina Ramirez, who organized a rally opposing the fee increases. “They’re supposed to make education available to everyone.”
Despite deep budget cuts and future uncertainties, Mission and the four other community colleges in the region maintained about the same number of classes for the fall semester as last year.
Enrollment was down slightly at the larger schools, such as Valley and Pierce, despite increased demand elsewhere. The smaller colleges--Mission in Sylmar, College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley College--had more students than last year.
“We’re up by 250 students . . . ,” said College of the Canyons spokeswoman Sue Bozman, referring to last year’s enrollment of 6,400. “We’re just getting more crowded.
“We didn’t cut any classes. We didn’t add any classes. We built a status quo budget.”
The college opened with 95% of the classes closed, Bozman said. Normally, registration would continue a few weeks into the semester.
Antelope Valley College also added about 250 students to last year’s enrollment of 10,250, but no additional classes.
The college eliminated 28 low-demand courses and added core courses in English, mathematics and science. “We shifted some around,” said spokesman Steve Standerfer.
At Mission College, which opened a new campus in Sylmar last year, enrollment stood at 6,916 as the week ended, up 12% from the same week last fall.
Another 2,500 students are on waiting lists, said Carlos Nava, dean of students.
“The biggest percentage of our students are returning students,” he said. “There is very little room for new students.”
At Valley College and Pierce in Woodland Hills, officials were able to offer the same number of classes as last year, although their budgets were smaller.
“Our current budget is $500,000 less than last year,” said Lowell Erickson, Pierce College president. “So far, we’re maintaining the same level as last year.
“We’ve robbed all of our accounts. We’ve cut back. I don’t know what we’ll do if we get any less.”
Had the Legislature approved Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposed budget, which slashed $132 million from community colleges statewide, Erickson said Pierce would have had to cut a third of its more than 1,800 classes in the spring.
The situation was much the same at Valley College, where administrators maintained the status quo with $750,000 less in funding for the school year. In this case, status quo meant classrooms packed with students.
Instructor Shannon Stack said her humanities and history classes at Valley College were filled their first meeting. “There are 50 seats in my humanities class and 50 students,” she said.
Another 15 to 20 students are on a waiting list for her class, but Stack said she will admit no more than 50.
“I’m not going over fire regulations,” she said. “I have seen many students sitting on the floor in other classes.”
At all five colleges, students, administrators and faculty members alike were upset over the student fee increases.
The fee is “a flat-out tax on students because the state gets the money,” complained William Norlund, vice president of academic affairs at Pierce.
Mission College students sent a petition containing 1,600 signatures opposing the hike to Gov. Wilson. Valley College students plan a protest rally today.
“The major problem I have is that the students will be paying more and still having their classes cut. I personally have talked to many students who will have to drop out of college if this happens.” said Erica Hauck, a Valley College student and student representative on the district’s board of trustees.
Hauck noted that a third of students in the nine-college Los Angeles Community College District come from families with incomes of $12,000 a year or less.
“This is a tax on the people with the least ability to pay,” she said. “I see this as closing the doors to people who need the education the most.”
Especially troubling to many was the higher fee for students with more than bachelor’s degrees--as opposed to the low fees charged someone still trying to obtain any degree at all.
“These are not people who are just diddling around,” said Bozman of College of the Canyons. “These are serious students.
“Quite a few have a B.A. We had about 435 who on their applications reported they had a B.A. We don’t know how many don’t.”
Mission College’s Nava said the fee will have “a major impact on people coming here from other countries. They’re going to be hard hit. These are people who have Ph.D.s or master’s degrees, but need English or other requirements in order to practice in this country.”
Pierce’s Norlund said many students with college degrees are people who have lost their jobs who have returned to school to learn another trade. “They’re people who are diligently trying to get an education,” he said.
“We’ve got GM workers flooding our classes,” said Standerfer of Antelope Valley College. “Practically every entry-level course in vocational education is full.”
“We’ve never seen anything like this before in vocational education. It’s sad. These students are trying so hard to get back in the work force.”
But at least one student said she wouldn’t mind paying higher fees, if she could only get the classes she needs.
“If I have to pay more to get classes, I don’t care,” said Pierce student Lisa Nelson. “To me, education is the answer to everything.”
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