Ensuring Access with Quality to California Community Colleges

May 2004


The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education established a firm commitment by the state of California to extend college opportunity to every adult who could benefit from it. Yet today the Golden State ranks 36th in the country for the percentage of high school graduates that go on to get baccalaureates. Over the next 10 years, the problem is expected to worsen due to a combination of factors coalescing into a “perfect storm” that will send our higher education system into an even greater state of emergency and overwhelm its ability to educate and train Californians with the skills they need to be part of the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century.

At the center of this storm are the California community colleges. As the most affordable and geographically accessible institutions of higher education in California, community colleges are the point of entry to higher education across the state, enrolling more than two-thirds of first-time students who attend state colleges and universities. This comprehensive report, which integrates 10-year demographic and enrollment projections in community college districts statewide with firsthand interviews with educators on the frontline, analyzes the scope of the problem and makes recommendations for avoiding an even greater, looming crisis.

A Mounting Crisis

At a time when the broader imperatives of economic competitiveness and community well-being compel California to renew its commitment to college opportunity, the capacity of the community colleges to make good on that promise has been substantially eroded. According to findings in the report:

  • In fall 2003, an estimated 175,000 students were denied access to community colleges due to reductions in course offerings and lack of resources.
  • From 2002 to 2003, the number of course sections offered across the system declined by an estimated 9 percent with some colleges cutting sections by as much as 25 percent. Classroom overcrowding, with students sitting on the floor and spilling out into the hallways, has also increased system-wide.
  • Many colleges faced with budget cuts have had to reduce their enrollments and give enrollment priority to students already attending college, to the detriment of new students seeking higher education.
  • From 2002 to 2003, the percentage of first-time and returning community college students over age 25 declined, most likely as a result of reduced weekend and evening classes.

These and other findings suggest that enrollment pressures and budget reductions not only have reduced access to higher education in California generally, but also are beginning to shift the composition of community colleges toward more “education-savvy” students with strong high school academic records who can attend during the day. Those less prepared to navigate the increasingly overcrowded and competitive environment of the community colleges are being left behind. Many in this second group of students rely on community colleges for vocational training to enter the workforce rather than as a stepping stone to a four-year college or university.

A Perfect Storm

This report shows that California faces several contextual factors that intensify the challenge of renewing, preserving and extending college opportunities for its residents. By all indications, the strain on our higher education system and on community colleges in particular is not a short-term problem with a short-term fix due to the seismic shifts in demographics and economic and workforce demands. The report found that the most significant contributors to this perfect storm are:

  1. “Tidal Wave II.” The California Master Plan for Higher Education was in significant part necessary because of the arrival of “tidal wave I,” the large number of young people reaching college age that resulted from the “baby boom” immediately after the Second World War. Beginning in fall, 2002, a similar surge in high school graduates began–tidal wave II. The demand for higher education is projected to grow by more than 700,000 students in California in this decade. Three-fourths of this growth will occur in California’s community colleges. By 2010, California will need to accommodate additional students comparable to the total number of college students currently enrolled in the state of Illinois. Topping the list for the highest enrollment increases by number of students are Los Angeles, Los Rios, North Orange, Rancho Santiago and San Diego community college districts.
  2. Shifting demographics. There are dramatic increases in the number of Latino students, first-generation college students and students from low-income families that are graduating from high school and seeking to enroll in college. Yet participation rates among these groups are low. For example, Latinos are projected to represent almost 80 percent of the increase in high school graduates by 2010, but only 40 percent of the increase in community college enrollments. If the participation rates of Latino students were to rise, the impact of the enrollment pressures on the community colleges would be even more severe-and concentrated primarily in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
  3. Top down pressure. Ongoing state budget difficulties have raised tuition and reduced funding for growing enrollment at UC and CSU. This will force up to 25,000 students per year who are eligible for those institutions to enroll elsewhere, putting additional strain on the community college system.
  4. Hidden Tidal Wave: Nearly a million young adults in California ages 18 to 24 do not have high school diplomas (30 percent). This group should receive education policy priority because their lack of preparedness for the 21st century workforce could mean they will demand far more from society than they return to it. If the problem is to be addressed, community colleges will have to play a significant role.

These conditions will challenge all sectors of California higher education, but their impact will fall most heavily on the community colleges-the campuses that enroll most California college students.


Fortunately, there are at least two factors that bode well for a concentrated effort to strengthen California’s historic commitment to educational opportunity. First, public opinion research has always shown strong public support for higher education and college opportunity, and substantial resistance to policies that are perceived as reducing opportunity. Second, no nation or other state enjoys the equivalent of California’s vast aggregation of campuses and related facilities. As difficult as it may be to marshal the educational sectors and segments to a common cause, the task is immensely more feasible than it would be without this enormous infrastructure.

Because the problems facing the community colleges are specific to local enrollment pressures, many of the solutions will need to be regional in nature yet must build from both state and regional policy leadership. Access to, and the successful completion of, a high-quality undergraduate education must be reestablished as a visible central feature of California’s economic and social policy. An improved California Community College system is well suited to bring that vision to fruition.

Research Methodology

This report was conducted from January 2003 to January 2004, drawing from site visits and interviews throughout California with state and institutional leaders for community colleges, including students, faculty, administration and trustees. Data were also drawn from California Community Colleges, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, California Department of Finance, California Department of Education and other government sources.

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