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Michael Berger: Bill helps colleges meet student needs

Posted: May 12, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 12, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Higher education is undergoing significant changes such as we’ve never seen before. And while we’re charging forward to integrate technology in the classroom, offer online learning, and enhance the academic support available to students outside of the classroom, we find ourselves being held back by a relic of the past.

Current state law requires colleges to spend at least 50 percent of their general operating budgets on salaries and benefits of faculty engaged in "classroom instruction."

That sounds good in theory. But the so-called "Fifty Percent Law" was written in 1961 and it narrowly defines "classroom instruction" to a limited scope of activities that does not encompass the broad range of academic services offered today by our faculty.

In particular, it doesn’t include faculty counselors or faculty librarians who work with students on a daily basis.

Nor does the definition include any of the academic duties that faculty perform outside of the classroom, such as curriculum development, faculty committee work, and development of student learning outcomes, which are essential to their jobs.

Unfortunately for students, the way the Fifty Percent Law is currently written dis-incentivizes colleges from hiring counselors and librarians, since their salaries and benefits count against our obligation to meet the 50 percent threshold.

Although the Legislature passed the Student Success Act of 2012, the Fifty Percent Law arbitrary budget constraint prevents colleges from directing resources to core support services that positively impact student retention and completion.

Legislation pending in the state Assembly would change that.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, introduced Assembly Bill 806 to revise the Fifty Percent Law and give colleges the flexibility necessary to align resources with student needs.

The bill would allow the salaries and expenses of faculty counselors and faculty librarians to be considered allowable Fifty Percent Law expenses.

We need that now more than ever. The Student Success Act requires colleges to provide additional student support services. And although these activities directly benefit students, the expenses fall on the wrong side of the Fifty Percent Law equation.

In fact, 21 of the 22 recommendations made by the state Chancellor’s Office Student Success Task Force require spending that counts against Fifty Percent Law compliance.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended in its 2010-11 budget report that the Fifty Percent Law be amended to include salaries and benefits for faculty counselors and faculty librarians as allowable Fifty Percent Law expenditures.

"We find no evidence that this policy, which sets arbitrary restrictions on how colleges can allocate resources, improves student outcomes," the report said of the Fifty Percent Law. "Indeed, by limiting districts’ flexibility to respond to local needs, they can impede the ability of community colleges to provide adequate support services that improve student performance."

That is particularly true now, as community college districts continue to grapple with the impacts of state budget cuts made in prior years.

With state revenue being reduced by 10 percent over the past five years, budgets are still below 2007-08 levels.

That downturn triggered a decrease in spending on student support services as colleges sought to maintain compliance with the Fifty Percent Law.

The time has come to update the Fifty Percent Law and ensure that districts are empowered to invest their resources in the classroom, and in the activities that bolster student success in the classroom.

AB 806 will do just that, and I applaud Assemblyman Wilk’s willingness to lead the way and seek the much-needed changes to this five-decade-old law.

Michael Berger serves as president of the Santa Clarita Community College District Board of Trustees.


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