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Less money, more problems

Pending legislation will restructure community colleges, adding to Cuesta's already full workload

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Cuesta just can’t catch a break. With the danger of losing its accreditation looming large, the mood was already somber on April 4 as the Board of Trustees met to address ongoing shortfalls in state revenues by slashing another $3 million from the institution’s already anemic budget. The move eliminated 26 positions, laid off 16 people, and reduced course offerings by 75 class sections.

And now, there’s this: A bill that’s being discussed in the California State Senate Education Committee is poised to reshape the entire community college system by instituting mandatory assessment tests for all incoming students, limiting state assistance, and holding students to a strict student success plan aimed at moving them through the system as efficiently as possible.

Henry A. J. Ramos sits on the Board of Governors (BOG), a 17-member advisory board that helps shape policy for California’s community colleges. Though he doesn’t represent the Central Coast, per se, he lives in the area and came to the Cuesta board meeting to shed light on the bill and warn administrators of what’s to come.

“This fundamentally puts to question the historic mission of the community college system,” Ramos said. “It’s not something anyone feels good about.”

Currently, all low-income students qualify for a BOG waiver, which lets students take as many transferrable courses as they want without paying unit fees. If Senate Bill 1456 passes (and it’s expected to), caps would be placed on the BOG waiver so that students would have to pay full price after 110 units and for any classes they have to retake more than three times.

“We just don’t have a tax-paying base willing to support the diverse interests of our student population,” Ramos said. “There’s pressure to be more purpose driven and outcome based.”

The law would require schools to use the results from assessment tests to draft a detailed Student Education Plan (SEP), complete with an individualized course plan and recommendations for support services and tutoring in any areas of deficiency. Students who deviate from their SEPs would lose priority registration.

“Some students come in with the idea that they’re going to be rocket scientists, which isn’t always feasible,” Ramos told New Times. “This would find a balance between their passions and realistic abilities.”

The changes stem from recommendations made by the Student Success Task Force, a 21-member team of faculty, college presidents, business leaders, and students that formed in 2011 to address declining rates of educational attainment statewide.

Cuesta officials weren’t happy to hear about the plan.

President Gil Stork noted that community colleges had always embraced a “come as you are” philosophy, and that overbearing regulations could crush student freedom and discourage experimentation. He also worried about how the school would provide the extra assessments and counseling services.

“Matriculation has been dismantled over the last four years,” Stork said. “We will not have the staff it takes to provide those services.”

Allison Merzon, president of Cuesta’s faculty union, said the average student changes degree subjects five times before finishing school. She didn’t want to see SEPs drive course offerings and reduce the school’s ability to introduce students to new, strange, and exciting ideas.

“Faculty has a plan, and that is: Fund us,” Merzon said.

She said a better way to encourage student success would be to create a robust class catalog with multiple options for the same courses. That way, students would have a better chance of fitting school into their schedules. More teachers and classrooms with less crowding would increase access to faculty after hours, a factor that Merzon said would increase success rates.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal is the chairperson for the state Senate Education Committee. He told New Times that the new rules wouldn’t limit access to community colleges. Instead, he said, they’ll make the system more efficient so students can get in and get out with the skills and certificates they need to move on with their goals.

“We’ve asked [community colleges] to do too much with too little focus and too few resources,” Lowenthal said. “They can’t be everything for everybody anymore.”

Students need 60 units to transfer to a university or to get an associate’s degree, and the new law still lets them experiment with up to 110, which Lowenthal believes is plenty of leeway.

As to the costs of implementing the new assessments, Lowenthal said he’s sympathetic to Cuesta’s concerns. There’s no funding built into the law, but there’s also no start date. Lowenthal said it would be feasible to wait until the economy turns around and the state has sufficient revenues before applying the mandates. Still, he is pushing for the law to be passed by Aug. 31, when the legislative session ends.

“There are a number of schools doing this kind of thing within their existing budgets,” Lowenthal said. “Still, increasing success is not free.”

Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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