SAN FRANCISCO — Student enrollment at California's community colleges has fallen dramatically in recent years as campuses slashed teaching staffs and course offerings in response to unprecedented cuts in state funding, according to a report released Tuesday.
The report by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California details the impacts of $1.5 billion in state budget cuts between 2007 and 2012 on California Community Colleges, the nation's largest system of higher education.
During that period, enrollment within the 112-campus system dropped from 2.9 million to 2.4 million students, according to the report, which is based on official campus reports and interviews with more than 100 senior administrators.
Modesto, Columbia affected
Modesto Junior College enrollment rose to a peak in fall 2008, pressed upward by the unemployed seeking new job skills and first-time collegegoers staying home. From that peak of 20,418, enrollment fell to 17,362 in fall 2012, a 15 percent drop.
Columbia College, the second school in the Yosemite Community College District, went from 3,564 enrolled to 3,073 in the same period.
Those drops, however, were cushioned by the district squeezing more into classes than they were paid for by the state. While districtwide full-time student enrollment was 16,209 for 2010-11, the state sent money for only 15,971, according to district records.
"(That) translates to less student access," said YCCD spokesman Nick Stavrianoudakis.
Funding for the district fell from a peak of $94.4 million in operating revenue in 2007-08 to $85.6 million this school year.
Stavrianoudakis said funding cuts have also hit special programs.
"Some programs were eliminated altogether, which puts an even greater burden on the unrestricted funds," he said.
Enrollment at Merced College dropped to 11,800 during fall 2012 from 13,037 during fall 2010, said Robin Shepard, spokesman for the college. Enrollment during fall 2011 was at 11,588, he said.
First-time students decline
Statewide, enrollment declines were steepest among students returning to school after an absence and first-time college students, researchers said. Enrollment of first-time students fell 5 percent even as the number of high school graduates in California rose 9 percent.
"The decline in access of first-time students is troubling, given California's longstanding need to increase college-going rates for new high school graduates, who are the work force for the future," said PPIC researcher Sarah Bohn, the report's co-author.
On the bright side, continuing students completed courses, earned passing grades and transferred to four-year institutions at higher rates, researchers said.
California's community college system, which is known for its low fees and open-access policies, is open to nearly all adults, but in recent years campuses have been forced to turn away hundreds of thousands of students who couldn't get into the classes they wanted.
Prop. 30 helping out
Across the system, the number of academic-year course offerings dropped 21 percent, summer classes fell 60 percent and class sizes swelled, researchers said. All types of courses were cut, but the drop was most significant for non-credit courses for enrichment or remediation.
The outlook for California Community Colleges has improved since November when voters approved Proposition 30, a ballot measure that temporarily raises the statewide sales tax and income taxes of high earners.
"With the passage of Prop. 30, community colleges are slowly starting to restore the access that was lost, but it will take years for the system to regain its original financial footing," said Paul Feist, the system's vice chancellor for communication.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin contributed to this report.