Dianne Van Hook: What’s the big rush in Sacramento?

Signal file photo of the state's Capitol building ion Sacramento
These are busy days in Sacramento as legislators in the Capitol hustle to finish up a spending plan for the coming fiscal year by the June 15 deadline. But not every decision on the table must be made within the next week. When it comes to deciding how to fund community colleges, it would be wise to hit pause, and devote more careful consideration to the discussion. At stake is not how much the state’s 114 colleges will receive to fund their core missions of delivering career education and helping students transfer, but rather how that money should be allocated. There is general consensus statewide that the current enrollment-based funding model needs to be reworked. But the proposed formula introduced by Governor Brown in January moves too far, too fast. It would limit funding based on enrollment to 60 percent, and allocate incentive funding to colleges based on how many students receive financial aid, and the number who earn a degree, or make continued progress toward one. These are good ideas, but the metrics chosen to measure progress are flawed. By inequitably distributing revenue, the formula threatens to create a system of winners and losers, with some college districts seeing significant funding increases, and others losing resources. Rushing to approve the latest version of the proposed formula represents a risky gamble for the nation’s largest system of higher education. The most recent iteration was rolled out in mid-May by the state’s Department of Finance and did not provide scenarios needed to responsibly analyze the impact of the formula and its unintended negative consequences and ability to fund our colleges in times of a recession when our citizens need access to higher education the most. Further, the chaotic nature of this process leaves just a few weeks to review and analyze a formula that will distribute $7 billion of resources to a system of colleges serving 2.1 million students. Why are we moving so fast with so much at stake? California’s community colleges play an integral role in meeting the needs of our state’s dynamic economy. Students who earn a degree or certificate nearly double their earnings within three years. Transfer students from community colleges account for 48 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded by the University of California in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Funding formula changes are not unusual in community colleges, but they typically take a year or more to develop. That’s time well spent. It gives everyone – faculty, administrators, classified staff, legislators and state policy makers – adequate time to test the underlying assumptions and ensure a new formula does not create unintended consequences. But that’s what the current funding formula promises to do. The incentive metrics designed to encourage faster degree completion do not account for the needs of part-time students. Two-thirds of the state’s community college students attend part-time. Some take a class or two to move ahead in their careers. Others are police officers and firefighters who receive ongoing training through partnerships with their local college. While aiming to reward college completion by boosting full-time attendance, the formula would instead reduce funding to colleges that serve students in California’s high priced residential areas and inequitable job markets. To make ends meet, these students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, take classes part-time and work to afford high rent payments, child care, transportation, and other expenses. The solution to this situation is clear: Hold off on pushing through a new funding formula that would be implemented in less than three weeks. Instead, task a statewide group of community college leaders with developing a new funding formula within the next year that achieves equitable funding for all colleges, directs resources where they are most needed, and funds us to enhance services that will improve outcomes for all students. With so much at stake, we can’t afford to rush into a new funding formula and get it wrong. For the sake of our state, and our students, let’s take our time and get it right. Dr. Dianne Van Hook serves as chancellor of College of the Canyons.