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27 May 2013

No Opinion Whatsoever: College of the Desert Has Only Wishy-Washy Words on Contentious Community College Bill

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Joel Kinnamon, College of the Desert's leader, has no opinion. Joel Kinnamon, College of the Desert's leader, has no opinion.

College of the Desert Superintendent/President Joel L. Kinnamon doesn't have an opinion on legislation that could radically impact 2.4 million students in California's beleaguered community-college system.

The legislation in question, Assembly Bill 955, would permit community colleges to offer self-supporting courses at increased rates during winter and summer sessions, following budgetary cutbacks—to the tune of $800 million systemwide since 2008—that have left many of these institutions incapable of meeting ever-increasing demand.

Under AB 955, students would pay tuition of about $200 per unit for these courses, reflecting the actual costs associated with providing them, instead of the state-subsidized rate of $46. A third of the revenue generated from the courses would go to financial assistance for low-income students.

Critics charge that the bill would create a "two-tiered system," in which those who can afford to pay the increased rates are able to get the classes they want and need. Proponents—including the bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams—counter that systemic inequality exists now.

"If you fear a two-tiered system, I've got to wake you up: It's already here," Williams told Democratic lawmakers who had objected to the proposal, according to an Associated Press report. "There's one tier that can get in, and one tier that is locked out."

The Assembly passed AB 955 on May 20 in a 50-16 vote; it has received a first reading in the Senate.

Following a request for comment on whether College of the Desert had taken a stance on the bill, it took COD's press office 27 days to issue an awkwardly written non-statement on the legislation, attributed to Kinnamon, and transmitted by email through a "public relations technician."

"Dr. Kinnamon is certainly an advocate of actions that increase student access to the education they desire and the pursuit of the attainment of their goals," the statement read. "Providing a quality education for our students is our No. 1 mission. However, it is important that access be provided in an equitable way that adheres to the values of the community college system."

The intermediary, responding to an emailed follow-up question asking what the statement meant regarding Kinnamon's position, replied that Kinnamon did not, in fact, have an opinion on the legislation. This statement was attributed to Pam Hunter, College of the Desert's executive director, institutional advancement/Title V project director and public relations officer.

In contrast, it took Victor M. Jaime, superintendent/president of Imperial Valley College, precisely 28 minutes to fire off an email detailing his view on the legislation.

"Imperial Valley College serves a very high number of low-income minorities who are also first-generation college students," Jaime wrote. "This bill would negatively impact these students and place us back to a time when higher education was mostly accessible to those who could well afford the cost of higher education, placing low-income, disadvantaged students at the end of the line.

"I was one of those students who greatly benefited from the access provided to me as a low-income, first-generation college student. I have worked very hard for the last 30-plus years encouraging just this type of student to pursue a college degree and become role models for others in their family."

Roger Wagner, superintendent/president of Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, made himself available for a phone call about an hour after his institution was contacted by the Independent.

"Without a doubt, it's going to be a controversial bill," Wagner said. "I think it serves people in two ways: One, it serves students who otherwise couldn't take classes. So students who can afford it, who otherwise would go to (pricier) private colleges, can take them, and then it would free up courses (during the regular term). And then my understanding is that revenues would go to financial aid for students who can't afford classes."

Perhaps the most thoughtful and nuanced picture of the legislation and its context came from Denise Whittaker, interim superintendent/president of Palo Verde College in Blythe, who was also quick to respond to the Independent.

"I can tell you this is not an easy or simple conversation or topic because of the complex nature in which community colleges are funded," Whittaker wrote in an email.

Funding for community colleges is largely based on a state formula that revolves around the aggregate number of units taken by their students, with an overall "cap." Optimally, colleges maintain enrollment at that cap, and if demand for courses still exists, any additional offerings don't receive funding.

In the past, there was wiggle room for growth, allowing colleges to exceed the cap by as much as 2 percent and still receive financial support for enrollment above that limit. The economic downturn killed that, and now many institutions can't afford to offer intersession or summer courses without state help.

Other factors impose further restrictions. Community-college budgets have been downsized over the past half-dozen years, so cuts have been made to pay ongoing expenses—like utilities—that increase annually.

And then there are "workload reductions," which mean the enrollment caps mentioned above have been cut back—meaning colleges must slash course offerings to meet the lowered caps.

"Reduced course offerings mean students have fewer courses to choose from; fewer students enroll; and slower graduation and transfer rates result, because it takes longer for students to get through when fewer courses are being offered," Whittaker wrote.

In the end, according to Whittaker, demand for classes is greater than what many community colleges are financially capable of offering.

"Fall-and-spring, traditional course offerings have generally been reduced over the past few years due to budget restrictions, shutting students out, and colleges reached their lowered cap levels without having to provide intersession or summer school," she wrote. "It is a vicious cycle."

This is where AB 955 comes in. The question, according to Whittaker, is that when community colleges don't receive funds for summer or intersession courses, "how can access to higher education be provided to students while still remaining financially prudent?" Most community colleges do not have the money to pay for the courses without state support, and AB 955 provides a possible alternative.

"However, the issue or controversy then becomes one of equity or equal access—this option only applies to those who can afford it, and most of our colleges have high-poverty students where this option would exclude them," she wrote. "I see this as being the main issue, although there definitely is a problem in that many community colleges cannot meet the student demands, and there are no good alternatives."

If only Kinnamon and his College of the Desert colleagues were as forthcoming.

Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

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