State’s rigid funding rules hurt community colleges

College students working jointly on a project. (Photo: Prostock-studio, via Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, the nation’s largest system of higher education, the California Community Colleges, reported that it had met a key goal of increasing by 20 percent the number of students who earn college credentials.

While this is impressive, there is more work ahead to meet the remaining goals that are focused on closing achievement gaps for students of color and for students living in poorer regions of the state.

Achieving success for 2.1 million students is no small feat considering that the deck has long been stacked against the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, which guides policy and system supports for 115 colleges.

Similar points are made by multiple stakeholder groups. They ask, “Can’t the Chancellor’s Office just provide that for the whole system?”

Byzantine and inflexible state funding requirements make it more difficult – and actually more expensive – to properly serve faculty, staff and students throughout the system. As student and district needs grow, the Governor’s proposed System Support Program offers the Legislature an opportunity to break down funding silos set up over the years with different rules and to instead establish an integrated, flexible funding stream without increasing costs.

In a virtual town hall meeting held last week with community college faculty and staff across the state, a common theme was that colleges are often left to fend for themselves when there could be statewide solutions that serves all students regardless of their zip code. Participants stated that this lack of consistency across all colleges ultimately becomes an equity issue, disproportionally harming students of color.

Similar points are made by multiple stakeholder groups. They ask, “Can’t the Chancellor’s Office just provide that for the whole system?”

The Board of Governors’ revenue-neutral System Support proposal in Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget is an opportunity to do just that. It would cut red tape and ease administrative burdens to provide consistency in implementation for the fundamental needs of our students, faculty, and colleges.

The proposal could enable equity across our campuses so that students attending any college in our vast system receive the same core supports.

Take for example the statewide Library Services Platform project, an initiative that provides a seamless online library experience for all students across all campuses. The Library Services Platform has demonstrated the effectiveness and cost-savings of coordinated solutions to a common needs. Without the System Support Program, initiatives like the Library Services Platform could come to a halt.

The additional flexibility provided by the proposed System Support Program would allow funding in a manner that supports students and responds to changing needs. In addition, it will enable the Chancellor’s Office to work cohesively and effectively across investments, maximizing the system’s limited resources and ensuring alignment to the Vision for Success goals.

The Board of Governors would be required to adopt an annual budget for the new program and report on expenditures for the prior fiscal year. This approach would enhance transparency by ensuring that stakeholders, both inside and outside of our system, have greater access to information about the alignment of statewide activities with the Vision for Success and their use in support of our students.

Community colleges have a herculean task ahead – support Californians in the response and recovery to this tragic pandemic. State leaders can do their part by providing the flexibility needed to equitably serve systemwide needs.

Editor’s Note: Pamela Haynes is vice president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and a member of the Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees.

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