Education leaders bring advice to Cuesta College

Two of the state’s key education leaders spoke candidly of the financial difficulties facing California’s community colleges and called for schools to have an increased partnership with the community to make them sustainable.

Jack Scott, the chancellor of California’s community colleges, and Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of schools, addressed more than 150 local educators, administrators, students and community members Thursday at Cuesta College.

Both Scott and O’Connell said a smoother transition among students from one education system to the next is also needed and will save millions of dollars annually.

The impact of state budget cuts to community colleges is visible statewide: there are fewer classes, reduced summer school programs and waiting lists for classes needed to transfer to four-year schools.

“This is a sad picture because we wanted to educate more students but could not afford to do it,” Scott said.

There is no simple solution, he said, making it clear that schools could no longer depend solely on state funding.

“I advise this college to be inventive,” Scott said. “How in these tough times can you be creative and entrepreneurial?”

Scott encouraged community college foundations — the nonprofit fundraising arms of the colleges — to increase solicitations of community money. That, he said, is one way community colleges can continue to offer more than what is required during times of fiscal uncertainty.

“There are people in your community who care,” Scott said, adding that businesses should be asked to step forward and help financially support vocational and technical classes.

Examples of that partnership may be in asking industry leaders to donate expensive equipment for vocational training, he said.

Cuesta College is one of 112 community colleges in California, with 2.9 million students enrolled in classes last year. Cuesta enrolls more than 10,000 annually.

Like other community colleges, Cuesta has been battered by the difficult economy, forcing it to cut back class offerings even as the demand for them grows.

California’s Education Code states that the mission of community colleges is to offer academic and vocational instruction to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges and make them job-ready.

Policy changes to further support that mission are under way, Scott said.

He supports Senate Bill 1440, which would create an associate’s transfer degree with 60 units eligible for transfer to universities in the CSU system.

The move would save more than $100 million annually by reducing the number of superfluous credits students are forced to take, he said.

Community colleges throughout the state are facing the same financial challenges as Cuesta College. Colleges are scaling back their course offerings to solely serve their core mission.

“We tried to offer courses that we thought had the most desperate need,” Scott said.

O’Connell, calling the state budget “ugly,” said the cutbacks in K-12 education are equally harrowing.

“We are operating on $17 billion less than we were two years ago,” O’Connell said.

The program reductions create “a loss of learning opportunities that put our students at a disadvantage to their peers,” he said.

In San Luis Obispo County, more than 50 percent of high school graduates enroll in community college, said county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker.

O’Connell spoke of efforts to create a stronger collaboration between the two educational systems.

“It is clear that they see it as all one system, not a K-12 and then community college,” Crocker said. “Those of us who work in the system certainly know that, and it was great to have them both acknowledge it.” Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.