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Dianne Van Hook: State’s higher education faces fateful decisions

College of the Canyons chancellor

Posted: February 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.

It’s been said that the choices we make make us. And never has that been more true than right now in California, which faces a $25.4 billion budget deficit.

Tough choices lie ahead for our legislators about how to close that gap and create a balanced budget. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget plan cuts $12.5 billion in spending and creates $12 billion in new revenue by asking voters to approve a five-year extension of taxes expiring this year.

For community colleges, the governor’s plan cuts general fund revenue by $400 million.

COC’s share of the cuts would be $3.7 million, an amount equal to 259 course sections.

Although we do what we can to minimize the impact on students, there is no question they bear the weight of the decisions made in Sacramento.

At a time when California’s unemployment rate remains above 12 percent, when veterans are returning from overseas, and when our economy is floundering, access to higher education is being restricted.

When our students need us the most, we are turning them away based on decisions made at the state level. Last year’s budget cuts shut out 140,000 students statewide from community colleges.

Of the 8,018 new students who applied to College of the Canyons in the last three years, less than half (42 percent) were able to register for the classes they needed.

Between fall 2008 and fall 2010, the number of new students overall who enrolled in classes decreased 19 percent.

Those who did enroll took fewer classes. The total number of enrollments (classes enrolled in) by new students dropped 27 percent because a drop in state funding reduced the number of classes we could offer.

We had 10,670 students on class waiting lists in fall 2010, and that number is artificially low. We used to cap our waiting lists at 20, but we recently lowered that cap to 10. Had the waiting lists been constrained to 20 as had been done in the past, the projected number of wait-listed students would have been more than 14,500.

Behind the numbers are actual students scrambling to find classes, graduate, transfer to four-year universities or obtain the training needed to enter the work force.

While part-time students would often take five years or so to earn their bachelor’s degrees, we are seeing students take five years to earn an associate degree or complete the classes needed to transfer.

While students feel the pain today, ultimately, we all will suffer the consequences of their lack of access to education. The United States is losing its global competitive edge in terms of creating an educated work force.

When measuring the percent of adults with two-year or four-year degrees, we currently rank tenth at 41 percent behind Korea, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Australia.

In California, the gap is even larger, with only 38 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds holding degrees. That’s a foreboding sign for our state’s economic future.

It is estimated that 61 percent of all jobs in California (12 million jobs) will require some postsecondary training beyond high school in 2018. In other words, community colleges will prepare the majority of the state’s work force for future careers.

It’s clear that our state faces serious problems that require difficult choices to be made today. But the long-term consequences are more sobering.

Some may ask how we can afford spending on higher education now given the scope of our budget problems. But I say, how can we afford not to?

As the debate over the state’s budget unfolds, the choice before us is this — Do we view community college funding as another expense to be cut, or instead, see it as an investment in our state’s future?

By fully funding community colleges, we have the opportunity to make the right choice, and in so doing, make sure we boost California’s long-term economic vitality and our ability to thrive in a global economy.

Dr. Dianne Van Hook serves as chancellor of College of the Canyons. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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