Community colleges consider limits on retaking classes

As constrained budgets and course cuts have made it harder for many students to get the classes they need, the California Community Colleges are taking further steps toward rationing course offerings and focusing resources on students who are pursuing degrees, certificates, transfer or career goals.

Two proposed regulatory changes are headed to the Board of Governors in coming months. One [PDF] would bar students from repeating the same physical education or arts class more than once on the state's dime.

Another proposal [PDF] would give enrollment priority systemwide to students who are seeking degrees, transfer, certificates or career objectives – and would bump others to the end of the line, including most students who have racked up more than 100 units, students who stay too long on academic probation and those who veer off their academic plan.

The colleges already took one step toward limiting class repeats in July, when they cut off state funding for students to repeat most courses more than three times. That change didn't affect arts or physical education courses, however.

It's been a little more than a year since a 2011 Legislative Analyst's Office report recommended that the colleges cap the number of taxpayer-subsidized units that students could take and limit the number of times students could repeat state-subsidized recreational classes.

The proposed changes don't go as far as what the Legislative Analyst's Office advocated. Rather than capping the state-subsidized units at 100 units – the equivalent of more than three years of full-time college – the community colleges would bar these lingering students from getting first dibs on classes.

The limits on repeat recreational classes should produce some cost savings, though it's not clear how much, said Barry Russell, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.

Under current rules, students can repeat gym and arts classes up to four times. In 2009-10, about 52,000 students repeated the same physical education course they already had completed in a prior term. For fine arts classes with an activity section, that figure was about 20,000 students. Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, for example, had 1,430 students who repeated a gym class and 927 students who repeated an arts class that year.

"We heard loud and clear that the public and the legislators and everyone else were concerned that in this downturn in the economy, we weren't getting efficient enough, especially in physical education and avocational courses linked to fine arts," Russell said.

The proposal dealing with repeat physical education and arts classes will go to the Board of Governors in May for a first reading, while a first reading on the enrollment priority changes could show up in May or July. The earliest either change could go into effect would be fall 2013, college officials said.

Part of the fuel for the changes has been the large number of students who can't get into classes. The system saw 133,000 fewer first-time college students enroll in classes in 2009-10 than the year before and saw an additional 60,000 fewer first-time students in 2010-11.

Both policy changes take aim at decreasing the extent to which state resources subsidize classes for recreational or enrichment purposes – a goal that has been advocated by Chancellor Jack Scott but has been politically challenging for the locally elected governing boards and presidents who oversee college districts.

"One of the reasons it's important that we do this on a statewide basis is that it's something that's difficult to do locally," said Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services and special programs. "There are so many constituents that rely on the colleges for avocational courses. It's very difficult for the local president."

In fact, officials expect that districts might try to circumvent some of the new limits – particularly when the budget situation improves in the future – by creating new levels and varieties of the same discipline so that students can take something like golf every term without actually repeating the same class.

The new rules would try to address that possibility by allowing students to take different levels or varieties of the same sport or discipline up to four times. Students could hypothetically take beginning, intermediate, advanced and expert golf classes before maxing out, for example, Russell said.

"We were trying to drill this down to where it was ironclad and no one could get out of it," he said. "At some point, we do have to trust the campuses to not overstep and not abuse the situation."

While the proposed changes would prevent districts from getting state subsidies for repeat gym and arts classes, it would not prevent them from creating more "community education" classes in these areas – courses where students cover the full cost of providing the class and can repeat it multiple times.

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District, for example, offers a $60 class called Total Body Workout for Older Adults, which receives no state subsidies. Foothill College's state-subsidized Aquatic Fitness class costs $36, by contrast.

Some classes would be exempt from the new rules. The policies leave room for college athletes to repeat intercollegiate athletic courses multiple times, such as intercollegiate football or baseball. Music students who have to enroll in a performance ensemble every term in order to transfer into a four-year music program can enroll multiple times in choir.

Meanwhile, enrollment priorities would change to fit with one of the recommendations of the Student Success Task Force, a 20-member group that met throughout 2011 and came up with a set of 22 recommendations for broad changes to the community colleges.

While the proposal gives districts the flexibility to carve out exceptions, it sets in policy some systemwide expectations about who should get a first shot at access to a seat in a community college.

"It's such a core decision about how colleges enroll their students," said Erik Skinner, executive vice chancellor of programs. "Who do we open the door to and in what order? Normally, the system would not have in the past tried to control that."

The order of priority would be military or veterans first, followed by disabled students and those with specific special needs, followed by continuing students.

Under the recommendations, students lose enrollment priority if they accumulate more than 100 units – not counting basic skills or English as a Second Language courses.

Districts can create exceptions to the 100-unit cap, such as for students who are in high-unit programs like nursing. Skinner said he expects districts to embrace the mandate to prioritize students with specific academic goals. But the system would keep an eye on the exceptions nonetheless.

"It's one of those things we'll monitor, and if there's abuse of this, then the board would consider tightening further the requirements," Skinner said.

Students also would lose enrollment priority if they are put on academic probation or fail to complete at least half their classes for two terms in a row. And if they do not follow their educational plan or fail to declare a program of study by their third term, they fall to the back of the line, in theory making room for new students.

Under the proposed regulations, new students would have to develop an education plan in order to get enrollment priority. Continuing students would not be required to have such a plan, but if they have one, they have to substantially follow it, Michalowski said.

The education plan concept has proven controversial among some college faculty and staff. Chaffey College's Faculty Senate, for example, said in a response to the task force that forcing students to stick to an educational plan would rob them of the academic wandering and exploration they say is sometimes necessary for students to find their way in college.

"The college is concerned that students who need time to consider their goals will be punished by other recommendations that may compromise their financial support or registration priority," the Chaffey Faculty Senate's response [PDF] says.

View this story on California Watch

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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