Rationing higher education is poor public policy
On my first day as interim superintendent/president at Feather River College, the Chips Fire was burning along the side of the road as I drove up Highway 70 on my way to work. This setting is the perfect metaphor for the current economic situation in Plumas County and the state of California.
The Chips Fire was contained through the effort and determination of several firefighting agencies and an adequate investment in resources, even though we are currently mired in a poor economy. Right now California is at a similar crossroads — we must decide whether to fund an economic turnaround fueled by a trained and educated workforce or watch our state burn away like the initial stages of the Chips Fire.
I am often asked by students and community members alike, “If your classes are full, why don’t you just open up more sections?” The cold, hard reality is that the UC and CSU systems have limited their enrollments and now California community colleges are being forced to limit, or ration, the education and training for California residents. If the statewide economy is to thrive, it is imperative that California community colleges are fully supported to complete their mission.
Higher education in California has largely followed a three-tiered master plan: the top 5 – 10 percent of high school graduates are usually eligible for enrollment in the UC system, the top 30 percent are potential CSU enrollees, and community colleges are open access institutions for those who have the ability to benefit from post-secondary education.
Community colleges, like Feather River College, focus on transfer courses, basic skills education, and career/technical training. Schools like Feather River College prepare students to enter the workforce, transfer to a four-year university or obtain the basic skills necessary to succeed in higher level courses. The California Education Master Plan was designed to provide access to post-secondary educational institutions for all of California.
Why are community colleges important? More than 80 percent of the state’s firefighters, EMTs and police officers are trained at a community college. Another 70 percent of nurses are educated at a community college. In addition, 55 percent of CSU graduates and 28 percent of UC graduates started at a community college. Of the students who earned a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from the UC system, 28 percent transferred from a community college. The impact of the 2.4 million students in the California community college system is the lifeline behind California and its standing as the ninth largest economy in the world.
What about Plumas County? For every $1 California invests in students who graduate from college, we receive a return of $4.50 throughout the state. The operating budget of Feather River College approaches $12 million and our yearly headcount is approximately 3,400 students. Programs like the FRC Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) are directly responsible for 300 Plumas County websites since 2009 including 7.2 million hits on the various Plumas County chamber of commerce websites, over $750,000 revenue for one local business, 63 jobs created or retained in Quincy businesses, and a resultant $11 million multiplier effect to recirculate the revenue throughout Plumas County. Based upon our internal research, each $1 of the FRC budget directly generates $1.64 in the local economy. Feather River College is a major contributor to the economic growth and vitality in Plumas County and Northeastern California.
Now for the bad news. Feather River College, like all California community colleges, has been reduced by 12 percent in the past three years due to legislative budget cuts. Enrollments have dropped 17 percent systemwide as classes have been cut and services limited.
The UC and CSU systems limit their student enrollments due to their own particular mission and, more recently, due to statewide budget reductions. Now community colleges, like FRC, are similarly required to reduce course sections, eliminate student services and make difficult decisions about academic programs that provide opportunities for transfer, basic skills education and career/technical job training, and fill needs within our community.
Funding will be reduced by another 7 percent if voters reject Proposition 30 on the November ballot. Note that FRC must maintain its open access mission; instead FRC must reduce the number of classes and services offered to students. It is ironic that the majority of men and women who fought the Chips Fire were trained at community colleges, which are now limiting enrollments into these very programs.
We at Feather River College believe that educated individuals are necessary to generate a healthy economy for Plumas County, for California, and for the United States. An investment in higher education is an investment in California. We cannot continue to tell 12 percent of our state (with an additional 7 percent if Proposition 30 fails) that the door is now closed to their future.
Our Golden State’s economy is burning away as it is fueled by an unemployed and uneducated population. We must provide avenues for training, education, workforce development and careers for all of California, not just 81 percent of those who try to enroll in college. Like the recent Chips Fire in Plumas County, we collectively must invest adequate resources to solve this problem facing California.
To further reduce California community colleges, including Feather River College, will send a signal that California does not place a priority on higher education, job skills training or an educated workforce. We echo the recent quote from California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott: “We’re heading in the wrong direction.”