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Brown seeks to reshape California's community colleges

With a slate of bold and controversial budget proposals, Gov. Jerry Brown has placed a renewed focus on the state's struggling community colleges, the world's largest system of two-year schools that are often overshadowed by the University of California and Cal State systems.

The governor's recommendations are aimed at keeping community colleges affordable, keeping classes accessible and moving students faster through the system to allow them to graduate or transfer to a four-year university at higher rates. Brown's spending plan must clear the Legislature, and some college officials have vowed to oppose — or at least try to modify — some portions.

These proposals are among the most significant policy shifts in years and could reshape many campus operations.

FULL COVERAGE: California's community colleges in crisis

"It's a courageous plan," said Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College. "The governor is focusing on policy issues we've been talking about for many years but dancing around the margins. A lot of this has been on the table in statehouses throughout the nation, but we're addressing these issues in California in a meaningful way."

Community colleges play a vital role in California's higher education system, training large segments of the state's workforce. But the 112-college system has strained under the pressure of huge funding cuts and increased demand. Thousands of courses have been slashed and enrollment has been shrunk by more 500,000 students in recent years.

Most of the schools' 2.4-million students are unprepared for college-level work: 85% need remedial English, 73% need remedial math and only about a third of remedial students transfer to a four-year school or graduate with a community college associate's degree.

Education leaders praised the governor's efforts to follow through on his commitment to voters to restore education funding through the passage of Proposition 30, the school tax initiative —- even while expressing misgivings about aspects of the plan. The budget includes nearly $200 million in additional funding for the colleges.

"It's wonderful to have an environment where we're going to have some provocative conversations about policy," said community colleges Chancellor Brice Harris. "We're not going to shy away and [we] actually look forward to the discussion."

State officials said the plan is meant to build on changes proposed last year by a statewide task force charged with improving the colleges. Measures approved by the Legislature and Board of Governors establish registration priorities, including preventing students from repeating courses to improve their grades and allowing students who participate in orientation and academic assessment programs and have 100 units or less to enroll in classes first. Students also would have to maintain satisfactory grades to continue to qualify for fee waivers.

Brown goes further toward moving students through the system. He is seeking to limit the number of credits students can accumulate. Beginning next fall, he suggests a cap on state-subsidized classes at 90 units, requiring students who exceed that to pay the full cost of instruction, about $190 per semester unit versus $46 per unit. In the 2009-10 academic year, nearly 120,000 students had earned 90 units or more.

Students said they are particularly concerned that the unit cap is punitive for those who have a double major, who may be returning to college to train for a new job or who want to explore their interests before deciding on a field of study.

"We're going to work very hard to get rid of this," said Rich Copenhagen, a College of Alameda student who is president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. "The governor does seem to be interested in pushing through a lot of policy in this budget. He's in a position to say I got you more money, now you need to make your system better."

Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of Brown's plan is to change the funding formula for community colleges to pay schools for students who complete courses. Funding is now based on the number of students enrolled at the third or fourth week of the term.

The goal, said state officials, is to provide incentives for colleges to improve.

Brown's performance-based plan would be phased in over several years, and savings would be reinvested in support services.

The task force considered and rejected a similar funding plan.

Harris and others were cautious about many of Brown's proposals. Performance-based funding might encourage colleges to cut courses that are difficult to complete and cause students to switch to less demanding classes. He argued that enrollment priorities suggested by the task force — he served on the panel as chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District — would accomplish the same goals.

The new funding formula also might be an incentive to keep students in classes they are not suited for, said Michelle Pilati, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. She cautioned that the limit on units could create a two-tiered system of those who can afford to pay and continue their education and those who can't.

"I think he's putting policies on the table we really need to look at and think about," said Pilati, who teaches psychology at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. "As with so many things, the devil is in the details."

The governor also urged UC, Cal State and community college systems to find ways to provide more online classes. The budget provides nearly $17 million to increase those classes for the two-year schools. Brown is proposing a "virtual campus" with 250 new courses available to students statewide that would be transferrable to all colleges. Currently, about 27% of students take at least one course online each year.

System-wide technology, for example, would allow Long Beach City College to expand its online offerings — only about 5% of Long Beach students now take online classes — while keeping down costs, Oakley said.

In a new approach to speeding students' time in school, the governor would allow those with knowledge of a subject to receive course credit by taking a special exam rather than attending classes. The credits would be transferrable to Cal State or UC.

The emphasis on college completion has drawbacks, said some education leaders, and tends to ignore the realities of the typical community college student: They are older and have jobs and families and many attend part time.

"It's probably closing the door and becoming a little more privileged, benefiting students who can go full time," said John S. Levin, executive director of the California Community College Collaborative at UC Riverside.

The governor is also looking to shift some programs from the lower education system to community colleges. For example, the budget provides $315.7 million to shift adult education and apprenticeship programs from K-12, with funding directed to vocational education, English as a Second Language and citizenship classes. Students would be required to pay the full cost of instruction for other adult education courses.

Harris said he expected lively negotiations with the governor and legislators.

"This is about fine-tuning what we think is a great budget," the chancellor said. "We're not going to restore all the access we lost, but it is a modest investment in our future."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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