Columbia College’s enrollment has declined by about 500 full-time students within the past two years, and state budget cuts may force it to reduce classes again this fall.
Mirroring a statewide trend, Columbia’s enrollment peaked at over 2,600 full-time students during the 2009-10 fiscal year but was down to 2,100 students last year.
College President Dennis Gervin said that the exact reasons for the enrollment decline are unclear, but one thing is certain: If Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative is voted down this November, the resulting budget reductions will impact the school even more.
“We will have to cut fairly significantly,” Gervin said. “...It’s a pretty big hit for everybody. It’s really gonna be a game-changer if (the tax initiative) doesn’t come through.”
If the initiative fails, funding reductions would equate to almost $338 million for community colleges statewide and $4 million for Yosemite Community College District — of which Columbia College is a part.
The district’s reserves largely absorbed last year’s funding cuts, said spokesman Nick Stavrianoudakis.
Changes would become necessary next year and include “workload reductions”— meaning that the colleges will serve fewer students.
Gervin said Columbia College’s workload could be reduced by 6.4 percent, or about 130 full-time students.
Full-time enrollment at Columbia grew steadily beginning with the 2007-08 school year, with expansion of almost 9 percent in the next year. The decline began in 2010-11 from the peak of 2,600 students.
“We really did see some strong growth,” Gervin said. “What we’re doing now is kind of losing some of that growth we had.”
Enrollment at all California Community Colleges decreased by about 300,000 students since 2008-09, and course offerings shrank by 15 percent.
Recent attrition is taking Columbia back to its 2007-08 enrollment levels of around 2,100 students.
The school’s goal is to sustain that level during the 2012-13 school year, but the numbers are guesswork until classes start in the fall.
Gervin said enrollment may have climbed in 2008-09, the start of the economic downturn, due to an increase in older students changing careers.
He theorized that declining enrollment over the past two years may reflect the continually sour economy, although community colleges tend to enroll more students in tough times.
“I suspect things like the difficulty of getting financial aid and students having to work more and take fewer classes,” Gervin said. “The pressure is still really on...I’ll be curious to see what happens in the fall.”
Columbia’s fees have gone up from $36 to $46 per unit, with a total of 60 units needed for graduation with an associate’s degree.
Scott Nanik, principal of the Calaveras County Office of Education’s alternative and adult education programs, said he hasn’t noticed a difference in the number of his students going to Columbia.
He noted that the Mother Lode’s K-12 schools, from which most future Columbia students graduate, are dealing with their own enrollment declines.
Columbia’s distance from Calaveras County towns may be another factor, Nanik added — especially since gas prices are higher than they were a few years ago.
“Our biggest drawback...is transportation,” he said. “From Calaveras County to get to Columbia is quite a trek.”
Melissa Raby, Columbia College’s dean of student services, agreed with Gervin’s assessment that dwindling financial aid is likely contributing to lower enrollment.
Within the past year, new federal and state regulations have made financial aid harder to obtain and keep. The recipients of federal Pell grants, designed to help low-income students attend college, will now be able to use them for 12 semesters instead of 18.
Raby said that another new regulation has tightened the appeals process for students who lose financial aid after their grade point average falls below 2.0.
“The appeals process has been very, very limited to almost catastrophic events,” Raby said. “So they can’t really appeal for regular life experiences. We have a lot of students in that category.”
A set of task force recommendations being considered by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors could create more obstacles for students, Raby said.
One of the rules would change enrollment procedures, capping the total number of units a student may take and forcing those on academic probation to register last.
Raby said that many community college students are already having trouble signing up for the courses they need due class reductions. The added rules, which would be implemented in 2014, may simply make it harder.
This fall, Columbia College will be more aggressive in cancelling classes that don’t have enough students signed up, ensuring that faculty members teach the greatest number of students possible.
Gervin said the approach may lead to the cancellation of 15-20 “sections,” or offerings of particular classes, this fall.
But unlike many other community colleges in California, Columbia offered summer courses in spite of budget cuts. About 180 students took full-time summer courses this year, 80 more than last year.
The summer classes helped students finish courses that had been “wedged out” last fall and spring, according to Gervin.
“We offered significantly more in the summer,” he said. “That means we’re looking at scaling back in both fall and spring.”