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Pub date April 6, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

If tuition goes up to $40 per course unit at the community college where Dielly Diaz is working toward her associate of arts degree, she’s not sure she’ll be able to afford it. But Diaz isn’t just worried about her own shot at an education. She also wonders what’s in store for her 19-year-old daughter, a student at Laney Community College in Oakland. For parents scrambling in the face of the economic downturn even as their kids prepare for the future, she said, “it’s like we’re getting hit both ways.”

Diaz, who is 39 and originally from Venezuela, says she decided to enter Berkeley City College’s adult education program to earn her degree because the recession threw her into a precarious position, shaking the stability of her job as a mortgage loan officer. When she started just a year ago, tuition was $20 per course unit. It has since gone up to $26, and now the California Legislative Analyst’s Office is recommending ratcheting it up to $40.

Even as students are being asked to shell out more, California’s community colleges are reeling from the impacts of budget cuts: faculty layoffs, swelling class sizes, fewer available courses, and reductions in student services. For students hoping to transfer to other public institutions in the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems — or even for those seeking to develop a skill set that can garner a living wage — maneuvering the shredded educational framework can be frustrating. This past year, roughly 250,000 students statewide were denied access to community colleges due to a lack of course availability, according to education advocacy group Against Cuts.

“When you see all that, it’s like OK, I feel like I really need to do something,” Diaz said. “It’s not like we can just sit and wait, letting the cuts happen. I think we can really get organized.”

Between school, work, and being a mom, Diaz started pitching in on community outreach for Against Cuts, a grassroots effort that took shape last fall in the wake of devastating education cutbacks. It was one of hundreds of organizations that collectively launched mass demonstrations decrying funding slashes to education on March 4. The newly energized education movement plans to propel another mass rally to descend on Sacramento in the fall, Diaz noted, in the meantime focusing on awareness-raising efforts like an April 17 teach-in at Berkeley City College.

California’s community colleges are unique among the state’s higher education institutions in that they represent a gateway for nontraditional students to get a foothold for career advancement or a fresh start for people trying to improve their lives. They also offer an affordable option to complete lower-division coursework before transferring, a path that’s starting to become a bottleneck since courses needed to meet transfer requirements have been affected by cuts.

Yet even as fees climb and class sizes balloon, more people are opting to go the community college route, and demand for enrollment is only expected to increase. Some are college-age students whose families have been priced out of other institutions.

“We’re having this flood of people from the CSUs and UCs now trying to do their freshmen and sophomore year with us and then transfer,” notes Berkeley City College faculty member Joan Berezin. Others are individuals who can’t find work in an economic climate marked by 12.5 percent unemployment. “When we get hog-tied and cut and restricted, we close off possibilities to everyone,” Berezin says. “People who’ve just lost their jobs, people whose parents have lost their jobs, they’re all coming to us.”

Of the nearly 3 million students attending community college statewide, women and people of color are in the majority, and 80 percent work while attending school. It’s still a relative bargain for education, but fees are keeping pace with the rising costs of housing, transportation, childcare, and food.

“I have students who are homeless, who are living in their cars,” Berezin notes. “So we can say, oh, $40 a unit, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re taking 12 units and you have no income — and you don’t qualify for financial aid ’cause you don’t have an address … that’s a huge amount of money.”

Financial aid is available, but with narrow eligibility requirements — and even some of that funding may be headed for sacrifice on the budgetary chopping block. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year proposes suspending new awards for the Competitive Cal Grant Program, for a savings of $45.5 million. About 70 percent of Cal Grant award recipients attend community colleges.

“This award is dispersed according to income and GPA,” explained Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy at the Community College League of California. “Many of our students have a high GPA and a low income.” Some 22,500 students receiving this financial help would be affected by the proposal — and Tena says more than 150,000 eligible students already compete for the award packages.

Research increasingly shows that students from working-class families are being priced out of college — even community college — and that it’s harder to pay their own way without taking on serious amounts of debt. A California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) report found that in 1975, a community college student would have earned well over the amount needed for a year of school, including housing and other expenses, by working a summer job in retail. Today that same student would only be able to scrape together about two-thirds of the needed amount — and that’s assuming every single penny was saved.

“In the old days, going to community college was a break-even proposition,” notes Adrian Griffin, assistant director of research and policy development for the CPEC. “With stagnating wages at the low end of the job market, it doesn’t work this way anymore.”

The blow to community colleges caused by a loss in state revenue and consequential budget cuts mirrors the damage done to the entire public education system. While the recession has triggered especially hard times, this low point follows a long-term trend of diminishing state funding for education. In 1965, the state general fund provided $15 for every $1 paid in fees by UC or CSU students, according to the CPEC. By 2009–10, that state contribution had declined to $1.40 for every dollar paid in fees. “We’ve gone from a taxpayer-supported system to a semi-privatized system,” Griffin observed.

This point hasn’t been lost on the education advocates at Against Cuts, who are pushing for reform in tax policy as a solution for restoring public education in California. An information packet created by the group highlights a nearly 50 percent decline in the share of corporate income paid in taxes since 1981, even as corporate profits have shot up.

“There is no reason for education to be cut in California, the world’s eighth-largest economy,” Diaz said. “We can’t just continue to accept and accept and accept. Having a population that does not have access to education is dangerous.”