Public Comment

Commentary: Yes on Prop. 92, the Community College Initiative

By Cy Gulassa
Friday February 01, 2008

The Peralta Board of Trustees, faculty and staff urge voters to support Prop. 92, the Community College Initiative, which will appear on the Feb. 5 statewide ballot. Its passage is vital to our Peralta colleges—Alameda, Berkeley City, Laney, and Merritt—as well as to the 109 California community colleges and 2.5 million students.  

California community colleges are one of the state’s greatest success stories. They provide millions with the knowledge and skills that lead to personal development and high-wage jobs that pump billions back into the economy. For every dollar spent on community college students, the state gains $3, thanks to the greater earning power of graduates. On average, students who earn a vocational degree or certificate see their wages double within three years of graduation. Compared with CSU and UC, community colleges are an amazing bargain for taxpayers. For each full-time freshman or sophomore, the state pays community colleges only one half of what it pays to CSU and one-third to UC. In other words, for every tax dollar, community colleges are twice as productive as CSU and three times that of UC.  

So why do we need Prop. 92? This landmark measure corrects a serious flaw in community college funding, which is tied to and driven by K-12 attendance. As attendance shrinks or expands in K-12, so does funding for community colleges. Today the two systems are out of sync; while K-12 attendance is falling, community colleges are expanding. Further, as the economy worsens, community college enrollment accelerates because laid-off workers return in thousands to retrain or upgrade skills.  

Complicating matters, while community colleges are guaranteed in statute a fixed percentage of the combined K-12/community college pot of money (together called K-14), the actual percentage fluctuates during the annual battle over the state budget, with community colleges often the loser. In effect, K-12 and community colleges play together in the same dollar sandbox, but being politically much bigger, K-12 can take some of the community college share when convenient. 

Tying community college funding to the fate of K-12 attendance not only makes no sense, in lean years it destabilizes planning, forcing last-second across-the-board cancellation of classes and reductions in high-cost programs like nursing. 

At fault is the assumption that K-12 provides the bulk of students to community colleges. In fact, K-12 graduates in any given year constitute only a minority of total enrollment. The average age is 28, 60 percent are female, and there are more Latinos, Asians and African Americans than in CSU and UC combined. In the fall of 2006 at Peralta, only 31 percent of students were 19-24 years old, while 51 percent were between 25 and 54. Because of the statewide principle of open access, Peralta students comprise one of the most diverse and complex populations in the state, with a staggering array of needs. They include high school dropouts, immigrants in dire need of basic skills, re-entry women, mature people upgrading skills and retraining for better jobs, as well as university bound students whose careers require high-end classes and state-of-the-art technology. A version of this profile applies to all California community colleges.  

How would Prop. 92 restore common sense to community college funding?  

• It would stabilize funding by creating two separate funds, one for K-12, governed by attendance, another for community colleges, governed by the young adult population (17-24), and it would limit growth in any given year to 5 percent. The split does not raise taxes and does not affect K-12 funding. In fact, for the next two years, both K-12 and community colleges would annually receive an infusion of $150 million. This is a tiny fraction of the state’s $141 billion budget and a solid investment in turning the economy around.  

• It would fix at 10.64 percent the CC share of the combined K-12 and community college allocation, eliminating annual, politically inspired fluctuations. 

• It would lower fees from $20 to $15 per unit and severely limit increases. Instead of $600, a full-time Peralta student would pay $450 per year. A typical student, however, also spends over $1,000 per year for text books, hundreds more for transportation, rent, fees and incidentals, and has less time available for essential full or part-time work. It’s estimated that the annual cost for a full-time community college student exceeds $7,000 per year. As with K-12, community colleges were originally intended to be free because the social and economic benefits far outweigh the cost. This is especially true today when many careers require at minimum two years of college. 

• It would establish in the state constitution a system of independent public community college districts and Board of Governors, similar to UC CSU, and K-12 governance structures.  

Admittedly, as written, Prop. 92 is confusing and subject to negative attack, principally by K-12 organizations that prefer to have political control over CC funding. When the details of Prop. 92 are explained, however, skeptics become enthusiastic supporters. Recently and remarkably, every single elected official in Berkeley endorsed Prop. 92 after Peralta Trustee Nicky Gonzalez-Yuen explained the details. We hope you will likewise support Prop. 92. Your vote will help improve the social and economic welfare of all California.  


Cy Gulassa is president of the  

Peralta Colleges Board of Trustees.