Columbia College cuts classes, looks to create sustainable future

Aiko Gonzalez, president of the Associated Students of Columbia College, sits in the student center of the college near Sonora on Thursday.
Aiko Gonzalez, president of the Associated Students of Columbia College, sits in the student center of the college near Sonora on Thursday.

Construction at Columbia College will improve roadways and the Manzanita student services building, but changes happening behind the scenes may have the greatest impact on the 46-year-old campus. After a rough start to the spring semester, the college is asking the public what it can do better.

The college canceled 70 classes – 11 percent of the course list – just before classes started Jan. 12. The number of classes cut and the scant notice created havoc for students, said Aiko Gonzalez, president of the Associated Students of Columbia College.

“At first, there’s that real freezing moment when you learn your class is canceled. It is very shocking,” said Gonzalez, sitting in the student center Thursday. “It’s clear we need to more effectively communicate to students the ‘Now what happens?’ It’s a different situation for each student,” said Gonzalez, who also had to make a fast switch to an online class to finish her transfer degree this spring.

“It messes you up,” said student Candace Collum, dropping her backpack at a nearby computer station. The sociology course she planned to take was among the 70 nixed.

“They canceled the only class that weekend (before the semester started). I had to take an online women’s health class. It sucks because I hate online classes and I suck at them. But it filled the requirement,” Collum said.

Other students had part-time job hours upended by the shift in their class schedules. More than 50 courses started a week or two later to accommodate students trying to sort out their schedules.

“The panic mode has subsided a bit, there’s still that sense of ‘Where do we go now?’” Gonzalez said. Going forward, she said, students have joined campus committees looking at ways to lay out a more realistic schedule in the first place, and better manage cancellations when they happen.

The cuts saved $50,000, Columbia President Angela Fairchilds said at a community forum Jan. 20. On Thursday, she said the college must staunch an annual deficit of about $650,000. Adding in one-time losses from dwindling student numbers will shrink next year’s budget by $1.2 million.

“It’s just not sustainable,” she said. Tiny classes had become a regular feature at Columbia, even as budgets shrank. Most of the classes canceled had fewer than 10 students, while the state reimbursement is based on having 30 students per class.

“In our eagerness to provide more options, we’ve tripped ourselves up a bit,” Fairchilds said. The college guideline is at least 18 students for general classes and 15 for key courses in a major.

Streamlining the number of similar class offerings is being studied, Fairchilds said. She is promoting the state’s incoming requirement for students to make education plans, saying it will give them a timeline and give the college a better estimate of classes needed each semester.

How cancellations happen also is getting a closer look, including when to make the decision and ways to personalize the message with that what-next answer.

Looking to the future, bringing classes closer to Calaveras County students is in the offing with a deal to offer Columbia College classes at a closed elementary school.

The college has a community survey in the works to find out interests and time preferences of folks already in the neighborhood. Fairchilds said they also will be checking what jobs are open and which skills are needed to fill them. The effort can help advertise the shady campus, which has dropped to the equivalent of about 1,900 full-time students.

“Enrollment has been declining and we haven’t investigated why that is. We’re going to be realigning what we’re doing. I would be pleasantly surprised, and I would be eating humble pie, if we didn’t find any disconnect between what we’re offering and what our community tells us they need,” Fairchilds said.

What the community needs, however, may be more wellness classes, teaching English or engaging topics for retirees who have no interest in getting degrees. Its rural, mountain locale sits amid aging communities, where the numbers of students in high schools is falling. Nearly 20 percent of Columbia College’s student body is over 50.

Lifelong learning is part of the community college mission, but not one easily financed, given the state’s push toward four-year degrees, Fairchilds said. Columbia may look at creating a group such as the Modesto Institute for Continued Learning, better known as MICL (pronounced Michael), that offers non-degree classes at Modesto Junior College, Columbia’s sister campus.

“There’s a special heart about small colleges that builds a unique relationship with the community, that doesn’t always mesh with the priorities of state mandates and regulations,” Fairchilds said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.