Op-ed: Basic aid community colleges must start listening to students
The San Jose-Evergreen Federation of Teachers said the results of a student survey showed a 79% student preference for online classes. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Student enrollment has declined sharply at community colleges. Why then, are community college districts ignoring student preferences in course offerings?

We are faculty union leaders from three Bay Area community-funded college districts, also known as “basic aid.” Rather than being funded by enrollment, our colleges receive local property tax money to offer classes and services and run programs for the benefit of our communities.

But what happens when the community does not flock in droves to our campuses? Does that give districts the right to restrict classes and services for those who do come to the colleges—and instead squirrel away the extra money in reserves? Is it fair to the local taxpayers of our districts to simply refuse to spend the community’s money on the core mission of educating students?

Our districts are not fulfilling their responsibility to the communities they are supposed to serve. Instead of committing to offering classes students need, our colleges routinely cancel classes for what administrators deem “low” enrollment.

What is low? At San Mateo County Community College District, classes can normally be canceled with 19 students enrolled, though the union was able to get a temporary provision to prevent class cancelations for classes over 10. At West Valley-Mission, the threshold is 15 students. At San Jose-Evergreen a class can be canceled when it falls below 50% of the enrollment cap—in some cases, that number is 24.

Yes, our colleges cancel classes with 15, 19 and 24 students enrolled—students who may not find other classes that advance their education plans or fit their schedules.

Students who experience class cancelations or are left lingering on long waitlists leave our districts, creating a downward enrollment spiral. Class cancelations also harm part-time faculty who can suddenly find themselves unemployed. And because we are “basic aid,” our districts suffer no revenue losses when classes are canceled and enrollments drop.

This semester, our districts disregarded student preferences for courses. Our districts were so fixated on bringing students back to in-person classes that they failed to listen to students.

The data shows the majority of our students are over 20 and enrolled part time. In other words, we largely serve working adults who need flexibility to continue their education or are justifiably worried about attending in-person classes during the pandemic. Unfortunately our districts insisted on schedules with too much in-person and too little online, and then failed to respond when enrollment data indicated there was a scheduling problem.

It’s easy to neglect student preferences when the balance sheets of our basic aid districts benefit from declining enrollment. The basic aid formula creates a monetary incentive to disregard students and wield heavy-handed class cancelation policies that harm students and part-time faculty.

In our property-rich areas, basic aid funding has flooded our districts with money. Every dollar saved by turning away students is available to shore up already flush reserves, fund district pet projects and pay for administrators. Indeed, at San Jose-Evergreen and West Valley-Mission the trustees frequently approve pay increases for administrators, citing “extra” or “temporary” duties that are vaguely justified.

Residents can probe the ways in which trustees spend money by reviewing minutes from their meetings, from the boards of both West Valley-Mission and San Jose-Evergreen.

The community college enrollment decline can be stopped, but to do that, the districts must listen to students. It is especially incumbent on basic aid districts like ours to conduct and heed student surveys and craft schedules and programs that fit student preferences and needs. To do otherwise is a disservice to our communities. Now more than ever the colleges need to fulfill their core responsibility of meeting the educational needs of our students.

To understand the community college system by the numbers, readers are directed to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office Datamart.

Jessica Breheny is president of the San Jose-Evergreen Federation of Teachers AFT 6157, the faculty union for the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District. Kate Disney is president of West Valley Mission Federation of Teachers AFT 6554, the faculty union for the West Valley-Mission Community College District. Monica Malamud is president of the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers AFT 1493, the faculty union for the San Mateo County Community College District. 

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