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SCV Voices: Battling the recession to remain the resource of higher education

Dr. Dianne Van Hook

Posted: October 10, 2009 8:48 p.m.
Updated: October 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
By all appearances, this is a normal semester at College of the Canyons. Walk across either the Valencia or the Canyon Country campus and you'll be caught up in the hustle and bustle of students hurrying to classes.

As lively as it is on our campuses, things could be even livelier. We could be serving even more than the nearly 25,000 students currently enrolled.

Why? Because we're facing five converging areas of enrollment demand: one, increasing high school graduates; two, returning veterans; three, students redirected from enrollment-limited four-year universities; four, the newly unemployed; and five, those who need to retrain in highly skilled technical fields to equip themselves to avoid layoffs and/or secure employment when their firm downsizes.

More students aren't on campus this year because the state won't fund added enrollment. California is in the midst of one of the worst recessions ever, forcing the Legislature and the governor to make painful budget cuts due to steep declines in tax revenues.

Total statewide cuts to community colleges over the last 18 months are $840 million below the voter-approved funding levels for community colleges.

These are the largest cuts ever seen by community colleges at a time of record enrollment and never-before-seen levels of demand for access.

At College of the Canyons, we addressed an $11 million shortfall during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budget years.

Although we always strive to keep funding cuts away from the classroom, that was not an option given the magnitude of the cuts we faced.

Last year, we did not receive money to accommodate enrollment growth at a level commensurate with past years. We received far less than we normally do, and this year, we will receive even less.

In fact, we are funded to serve considerably fewer students than we were last year.

We did our best to accommodate as many students as we could and minimize the impact of funding reductions on the classroom.
The first budget reductions were made to travel, supplies, and other areas of discretionary spending.

From there, we strategically reduced our class offerings by 500 sections (a 12 percent decrease in the fall semester), as the State Chancellor's Office directed all community colleges to only serve those students for whom we would receive funding.

We kept core academic offerings and career technical education classes while eliminating historically low-enrolled class sections.

Classes reached 94 percent of their capacity this semester, an almost unheard-of number. We had 17,326 students on waiting lists and turned thousands away.

Enrollment demand will increase in the future as students recognize that community colleges can give them their entry point to a baccalaureate degree, job training, or new employment skills.

Between the fall 2007 and fall 2008 semesters, our fastest-growing segment of students at COC was those age 25 and older. We saw a 31 percent increase in this demographic.

As the UC and CSU systems continue to raise fees and limit enrollment, more students have turned to community colleges to complete their first two years of instruction before transferring to four-year institutions.

Also, large numbers of students who already possess baccalaureate degrees have turned - and will continue to turn - to their local community colleges to obtain the employment training they need to enter or stay competitive in the job market.

Unfortunately, the state is not providing the funding for us to serve the increasing number of students.

These are the same creative and talented students who need to be retrained so we can bolster our sagging economy. To retool the workforce and prepare people for the jobs of the present and the future, the state must fund that training.

The doors must be opened wider to community colleges, rather than squeezing people out of access to education when they need it most.

These are challenging times for all of us. We will not sink into a cycle of decline, a cycle of "we can't," a cycle of "if they won't fund it, we won't do it."

Instead, we will pursue partnerships, build alliances, and work to acquire outside funds that will enable us to increase our capacity in the future.

We will maintain our resolve to continually improve, to be innovative, to be creative, and to focus our energy on serving as many students as possible.

We have earned a reputation for being flexible, adaptable and responsive to what this community needs.

While we may not be able to do as much as we want, rest assured we will do everything we can to be this community's resource for higher education.

Dr. Dianne Van Hook is Chancellor of College of the Canyons. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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