State community colleges set to ration classes (San Francisco Chronicle)
The proposal is controversial, with many students and educators critical of a shakeout that could end free courses offered for generations, including classes such as music appreciation and memoir writing. Also squeezed out would be students who linger at college for years, sampling one class after another.
The problem is as basic as a butter shortage. Essential classes are in critically short supply as the state's economic crisis lumbers on. Last year, 137,000 students couldn't get into at least one class they needed, including first-year English and math. And many who are entitled to financial aid never apply for it because there aren't enough counselors to help them navigate the complex process.
60% dropout rate
The result is a dropout rate of 60 percent among students who expect to transfer to a four-year university or earn a vocational certificate, according to a 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy in Sacramento.
Fixing the problem will require overhauling the vast community college system, according to a task force of 20 academics and college advocates who have wrestled with the issue for a year. Established by the Legislature in 2010, the Student Success Task Force wants campuses to do a better job of helping students reach academic goals, and it wants students to move more quickly and efficiently through school.
But it won't be done with more money. Lawmakers cut $502 million this year from the system's $5.9 billion budget, on top of hundreds of millions withheld since 2009.
Instead, the task force wants to change how colleges spend the money they already have. Or, as Chancellor Jack Scott plainly put it, "It's not joyful to have to ration."
The backbone of the panel's 22 recommendations is to focus community college resources on students seeking degrees or vocational certificates. All students should have an education plan and make steady progress on it. Those who don't would lose registration priority. Those who qualify for a tuition waiver – 47 percent of students – would lose it if they are unfocused and take too many random classes.
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California's college system is the nation's largest, with 112 campuses and a mandate to admit "any student capable of benefiting from instruction," according to the state's Master Plan for Higher Education, established in 1960. Its main mission is to provide academic and vocational instruction "through the first two years of undergraduate education."
The plan also points to colleges' role in providing remedial classes, community service courses, workforce training and free, noncredit classes, including English as a Second Language.
Last spring, 203,500 students statewide took noncredit classes, and 1.5 million took classes for credit.
Fee waiver overhaul
Nearly half of students taking classes for credit are poor enough to qualify for a waiver of fees: $540 a semester for a full load of 15 credits, at $36 a credit. The price rises to $46 next summer.
The task force wants to rescind fee waivers after students accumulate 110 credits, well beyond the 60 required for transfer….
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"You shouldn't be a professional student," said Scott, the state chancellor. "You're taking up space needed by first-time students."
But complaints that such a policy would unfairly punish low-income students led the panel to leave the ultimate decision on fee waivers up to individual campuses.
. . .
At first the task force recommended changing state law to prevent colleges from spending public funds on such classes. But a public outcry led the panel to soften that stance. Now it directs colleges to verify that funds are spent only on classes that "advance student education plans" and says the law should only change "if necessary."
The panel also recommends strengthening the power of the state chancellor and implementing centralized testing….
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