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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 December 19 - 05:31 am

The California Comeback

Enrollment on the Way Up After Recession-Fueled Decline

Call it the California comeback. After years of declining enrollment due to budget cuts fueled by the Great Recession, enrollment at California community colleges is rebounding in a big way — thanks in no small part to Proposition 30, the voter-approved initiative that has infused community colleges with about $800 million in added funding through the current budget year.

The added funding has had a predictable result. More money means more course offerings. More offerings mean more students. After turning away about 600,000 students between 2007-08 and 2011-12, colleges are now welcoming growing numbers of students back to campus.

California community colleges dominate this year’s Fastest-Growing Community Colleges listings. Between Fall 2012 and Fall 2013, the five fastest-growing colleges with enrollments of 10,000 or more are all located in California, as are seven of the top ten and 13 of the top 20.

The list includes two colleges — separated by about 60 miles in Southern California — where enrollment jumped by more than 20 percent: Fullerton College (23.8 percent) and the College of the Canyons (21.9 percent). Three other colleges — Coastline Community College, Pasadena City College and Citrus College — each reported enrollment increases of 10 percent or more.

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“It’s really a matter of faculty and management working together to make students feel welcome,” said Rajen Vurdien, president of Fullerton College. “We have reached out to the community. We offer counseling plans in local high schools so students can get a taste of college. We’ve start testing for college readiness in their junior years in high school.”

Said Dianne G. Van Hook, president of the College of the Canyons and chancellor of the Santa Clarita Community College District: “I believe the growth here can be attributed to consistent performance over time. We are bullish about our partnerships with the K-12 systems and with economic development.”

The results in California stand out, given that overall enrollment at community colleges is on a downward path. Community College Week’s analysis found that enrollment at community colleges dropped by 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2013, on top of a 3.4 percent decline the year before. As the economy has improved, community college enrollment has declined.

Of course, the California colleges on the fastest-growing list had a lot of room to grow. The Great Recession wreaked havoc at community colleges around the country, but nowhere more than in the Golden State. Enrollment at both Fullerton and COC plummeted during the downturn.

Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, funding for California community colleges was cut by $1.5 billion. After five straight years of huge budget cuts, course offerings statewide were cut by about 25 percent. The reductions forced community colleges to reduce course offerings, shutting hundreds of thousands of students out the system for a lack of space.

But those days are in the past. According to a survey of California community colleges conducted last year, enrollment increased by 2.5 percent throughout the state and course offerings increased by 5 percent. The added revenue provided by Proposition 30 gets the credit.

“Thanks to the passage of Proposition 30 last year, our community colleges now have the fiscal confidence to increase course offerings,” Chancellor Brice W. Harris said in a news release on the survey results. “Colleges are operating in a more stable financial environment and can better serve students. This survey shows we are on the mend, but we have a lot more work to do to get back to the level of service we offered before the recession hit.”

The outsized effects come as no surprise. California’s community college system is the nation’s largest, with 112 colleges and more than 2 million students. One in every four community college student in the country attends a California college; three out of every 10 Californians are enrolled in a community college. The colleges train 70 percent of the nurses in California and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and emergency medical technicians.

The central position community colleges occupy in California life was part of the reasons that Proposition 30 — which increased the state sales tax by one-quarter of 1 percent and hiked income taxes on the wealthiest Californians — passed with 55 percent of the vote. The tax increases provide the state’s public schools and community colleges with about $6 billion a year.

The colleges which top Community College Week’s listings benefited from Proposition 30. Fullerton College received $23.2 million in Proposition 30 funds in 2012-13. The College of the Canyons got almost $11 million.

That allowed the colleges to increase their course offerings. Fullerton College increased course offerings by more than 28 percent, while the College of the Canyons offered 10.2 percent more course offerings, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Van Hook has headed the College of the Canyons since 1988 and has presided over years of rapid growth. When she took the helm of the college, it had about 3,000 students; today it has more than 18,000.

Van Hook credits strong ties to the community with helping the college bounce back from the effects of the recession. In 2002, for example, the Academy of the Canyons, a middle college high school located on the COC campus in Santa Clarita, opened its doors. The school, attended by 400 students in grades 9-12, allows students to earn college credit while still in high school. It consistently ranks as one of the best in California; COC has become a natural destination for many of the academy’s graduates.

“It builds a demand for people to continue their educations and complete,” she said.

The college also is home to the Dianne G. Van Hook University Center, a collection of public and private universities that offer advanced degree programs on the college’s campus, eliminating the need for residents to commute long distances to earn their degrees.

“We are out there on all fronts,” she said. “When you do what you say, and do it consistently, people will stay with you through the tough times.”

The college also operates the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies and the Employee Training Institute, both of which have helped local businesses become more efficient and train employees in the latest emerging fields. The college has trained more than 5,000 workers.

Fullerton College also has strong ties with local corporations, Vurdien said. In 2010, the college embarked on a machinist training program with the nearby Disneyland Resort. Disneyland employees enrolled in courses taught at Fullerton and then received hands-on training at the resort. The program has a 100 percent success and retention rates. A second training program is under development.

The college also ranks high in the number of students who successfully transfer to the California State University system. Under the state’s Associate Degree for Transfer Program, students who earn an “associate degree for transfer” are guaranteed admission to a CSU institution. In the 2012-13 academic year, 281 Fullerton students earned an associate for transfer degree, more than any other community college in the state.

Statewide, the number of students who earned an associate degree for transfers more than doubled to almost 12,000 in 2013-14. Of those students, 6,905 went on to transfer to a CSU campus. By comparison, 5,367 associate degrees for transfer were awarded in the 2012-13 academic year.

The community college system has more ambitious goals now that it has regained its financial footing. Last summer, it announced a goal to increase the number of students earning certificates, degrees or transferring by a quarter of a million students over the next decade. Achieving the completion goals will require increasing the system’s completion rate for degree and transfer-seekers from 48.1 percent to 62.8 percent.

Individual colleges will be given the flexibility to set their own goals.

“In a state as diverse as ours, we do not want to bind districts to a one-size-fits-all approach to improving completion, but we do expect all districts will thoughtfully develop local targets to help more students achieve their educational goals and move our state forward,” Harris said.

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