(photo by Ray Solano)

SMC — Santa Monica College officials released a report Monday showing that 15 community colleges in the Los Angeles area will have only a third of the seats open during the summer that they did four years ago, restricting students’ access to classes and forcing them into the arms of for-profit universities.

According to the report, students will compete for 84,000 seats in summer classes this year, compared to 252,000 openings available in 2008.

Students that can’t get classes during the normal school year, summer or winter sessions risk staying in school considerably longer, and it’s a problem impacting all levels of California’s higher education system.

Six of the 15 colleges had canceled their summer offerings outright. Santa Monica College fared the best of the group, with 754 classes offered this summer, according to the report.

It’s a crisis, said Don Girard, senior director of government relations and institutional communications at SMC.

“Nobody has a memory of when it was good,” Girard said. “This is a way to help us understand. It was only four years ago that we had a surplus of seats.”

The report, available at www2.smc.edu/updates, sets the stage for a wider conversation on self-funded classes, a controversial policy that was postponed after SMC students raised concerns about the proposal’s fairness and how it was communicated to the campus community.

Self-funded classes would allow the college to put on more classes during the summer by shifting the full cost of instructionn onto the student. That means that a single unit would cost $180 rather than the $46 that is normally charged.

The Board of Trustees voted in April to put the policy on hold until student, teacher and administrative groups could discuss the change and alternatives to what some derisively call the “two-tier” system, that promises advancement only to those that can afford it.

According to the report, there are very few good options left to local districts to cope with the loss of classes.

Glendale Community College worked out a deal with its faculty to take a 40 percent pay cut to teach summer classes in an attempt to keep the classes open.

Pasadena City College and, to a limited extent SMC, began private fundraising efforts to help subsidize the costs.

Rationing — determining who gets first chance at which classes — is already being discussed at the state level, where Community College Chancellor Jack Scott is getting behind a bill by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) to give priority placement to students that are making progress toward their educational goals.

Alternatively, community colleges could seek to increase funding by effectively raising fees either through self-funded classes or a system-wide increase in the amount charged for classes.

Theoretically, increasing the cost of classes so that they’re more expensive than community college courses are now but still below what’s charged by private institutions would attract students with federal Pell grants, a program which has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years from $7.2 billion to $29.9 billion.

According to the report, that would mean an infusion of federal money, particularly in the case of self-funded classes because unlike regular classes, students cannot use special waivers that push the full cost of classes onto the state system.

Data shows that in the face of restricted course offerings, federal Pell grant money is instead going to private for-profit institutions like DeVry University or University of Phoenix.

According to U.S. Senate investigation, enrollment at for-profit schools increased 225 percent between 1998 and 2008, despite the fact that classes are six times more expensive than community colleges and twice as expensive as a four-year public school.

At the same time, for-profits spent roughly a third of the money on instruction that a private non-profit school did, and approximately half of what a public school does.

As a result, for-profits do not add to student success. According to the investigation, 54 percent of students that enrolled in the 2008-09 school year had dropped out by summer 2010.

The paper is not meant to say what the college should do, but to spell out the depth of the problem, which is that the alternative is no classes, restricted access and more time spent at the community college level hoping to transfer, Girard said.

“We’re not talking about not letting the crack in the dike appear, we’re saying there’s no classes,” he said. “How do you talk about equity when you don’t have a choice?”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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