Local Community Colleges Face Growing Pains

Making the best of some bad choices

By Lindsay Hood
|  Monday, Aug 23, 2010  |  Updated 3:16 PM PDT
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The first day of school at Grossmont and Southwestern Colleges, usually means a time filled with excitement and anticipation, as students embark on a new school year and a new adventure, however, for students starting school on Monday, this semester may be filled with dread, the state's budget cuts forced both schools to slash their budgets by  millions.

For Grossmont, the smaller budget means the school has 171 fewer classes than this time last year, or 1630 classes compared to 1801 in 2009, said Grossmont College spokesperson Rick Griffin. This year Grossmont has more than 19,000 students enrolled for the fall semester.

"We are making the best of some bad choices, and creating new solutions to serve as many students as possible during these challenging times," said Dr. Sunny Cooke, Grossmont College president. The school was forced to cut their budget by $10 million.

Community colleges across the state have had to face the same budget woes. Southwestern College in Chula Vista has had some of the same challenges, but their outlook on the situation is a little different, they say they are doing more with less and being creative and innovative, when it comes to providing for their students.

"We are actually doing very well," said Southwestern Community College spokesperson Chris Bender. "We, like everyone, have been tapped by the state. We are missing the first portion of the payments due by the state."

Bender said when the payments didn't come a lot of community colleges had to borrow money. He says Southwestern hasn't had to do any of that, when the state economy started to go south they were ahead of the game. According to Bender, Southwestern's board prepared themselves for the changes to the school's budget.

The school hasn't had to cut any faculty or staff, Bender said, and everyone has gotten their raises.  In addition, he says the board made sure the staff had enough money on the books to pay for increased health care.

Bender says that even with the budget cuts they were able to add 34 more course sections this semester and create five new certificate programs. At Southwestern, Bender says the goal is to provide students with programs that will allow them to graduate and head straight out into the workforce.

"We knew the students were looking for jobs that would turn into income more quickly," Bender said.

As of Monday, Southwestern is currently at 80 to 85 percent capacity, Bender said. 

According to the school registrar at Grossmont, about 90 percent of the school's classes are filled to capacity, with more than 21,400 people are sitting on the school's wait list to add classes, Cooke said.

"We have seen increased demands over the past 2 years," Cooke said, and she believes the number will continue to increase each year. The school tries to predict how many students it will have to service each year, Cooke says that number is up by two percent. The school expected the number of student to only increase by three percent, but now they predict an increase of five percent.

"We are going to start with five percent more students then the state will ever pay us for," Cooke said. The school made the decision to go ahead and allow the students to enroll, because they thought it would be best for the community. Essentially, Cooke says the school will probably never be paid for these students.

At Southwestern they are in the same boat, Bender says in 2009 the school educated 700 more students then they were compensated for by the state.

"We lost out on $3 million worth of state money," Bender said.

The reason for the increase in enrollment is due to several competing factors; the increased number of the unemployed/underemployed looking for retraining, a higher number of first-time freshmen, and students having trouble transferring to four-year universities, Cooke said.

Students who are unable to transfer into a four-year college or university, because of the state university system's own budget woes, are remaining in the community college system longer than usual, Cooke said.

"Clearly, we have entered a time of doing business in different ways than in the past," Cooke said. "The reality is, this year, the job of serving every student who wants to go to college is impossible."

Bender says the state community college system is important in helping to educate the state's workforce.

"The community college system on an annual basis gives out more certificates and degrees than the CSU and UC systems combined," Bender said. "It is the Community colleges that give students the skills to go out and directly get a career."

The community college system serves 2.9 million students on an annual basis.

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