California Community Colleges “Ration” Courses in Response to Budget Cuts and Overcrowding

Feb 15, 2012 by Tom Dellner

It’s no secret that cuts in state funding have had an enormous impact on California’s community colleges. Most notably, schools have had to dramatically pare back course offerings. As a result, more than 137,000 students couldn’t get into at least one class they needed last year, according to a recent article published by the San Francisco Chronicle. And not only are classes full, waiting lists are, as well.

Community College StudentsIncreasingly, community colleges statewide have resorted to course rationing. Essentially, continuing students are given registration priority. The concept seems fair enough at first glance, but a number of inequities have emerged. For example, according to a recent article published by the Sacramento Bee, at some campuses where rationing has been implemented, students are finding it necessary to take courses for no other reason than to improve their registration priority status—they believe that working the rationing system in this manner is the only way they can be assured that they will eventually be able to get into the courses they want and need. Students who don’t have the time or money to play the system in this manner—or have no inclination to take courses that aren’t part of their degree or certificate plans—could be disadvantaged.

Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, described the practice as “irrational rationing” in the Bee article. He doesn’t fault the students, however. “They know the system, and have no better choice.”

This month, California community colleges’ Board of Governors approved a 22-point Student Success Plan designed to address the problem. Among other things, the plan would send to the back of the line students who have accumulated large numbers of units while making little progress toward a degree, certificate, or other educational goal, as well as avocational students.

For the time being, however, the status quo will remain; the Board will be able to move ahead with some elements of the plan as early as this fall, while other aspects require the passage of legislation.

Critics of the plan believe that, once implemented, it may disadvantage low-income students or those who wish to take a specific course or courses to gain knowledge or master a skill in order to advance in their careers or simply for personal growth.

It’s a thorny issue, and one that’s not going to go away soon as California’s community college system continues to struggle to fulfill its mission and maintain educational quality and student services in the face of severe budget cuts.

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