The Cuesta College Board of Trustees made a wise decision in hiring Gil Stork as the institution’s permanent president. He is a smart, proven leader who knows the college and community inside out.
While we do not agree with every decision he made during his interim presidency, on most points we believe Stork is taking Cuesta in the right direction at one of the most challenging times in its history.
We do, however, have continuing reservations about the administration’s strong emphasis on opening a South County Center, especially if it intends to ask voters to help foot the bill through a bond measure.
Several months ago, Cuesta came close to signing a long-term lease for a vacant industrial building in Grover Beach that would have been converted into a South County Center. That deal ultimately fell through, but Cuesta’s ambitious plan did not. That’s apparent from its new Educational Master Plan adopted earlier this month.
“For many reasons,” it says, “the need for a South County facility has become more pressing.”
We find that odd, because elsewhere in the report it’s clear that the college expects to enter a period of declining enrollment.
That’s due in part to demographics: Over the next five years, the county’s population of 18- to 25-year-olds is expected to dip.
On top of that, Cuesta officials are uncertain whether the college will continue to attract a large population of students from outside the area. In the past, roughly 50 percent of first-time students younger than 21 have been from out of the county. Officials are unsure whether that will continue, in part because students hoping to continue on to Cal Poly may recognize that it’s becoming tougher for all applicants — including Cuesta grads — to gain admission to Poly.
So why does it matter if Cuesta’s enrollment drops?
In a word, money.
Community college funding depends in large part on student enrollment, and for years, Cuesta has been losing South County students — and the dollars they represent — to Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.
Again, the Educational Master Plan makes that plain:
“Cuesta College celebrates that students in its service area choose to attend college, regardless of which institution that may be. However, that nearly 2,300 students from the San Luis Obispo Community College District attend Allan Hancock College each semester translates into an estimated loss of roughly 1,500 Full-Time Equivalent Students or nearly $7 million in apportionment funding annually.”
Opening a South County Center may boost funding for Cuesta, but at what cost to taxpayers?
When the state can’t even afford to operate the facilities it already has — think state parks — is it wise to open another community college “center” when Allan Hancock College is less than 10 miles from Nipomo High School and roughly 17 miles from Arroyo Grande High School?
We don’t believe so. From a fiscal standpoint, it makes far more sense to take a regional approach to community college education — one that allows neighboring community college districts to cooperate, rather than compete for a shrinking pool of state revenue.
Besides, there are other ways to encourage enrollment without opening expensive new facilities.
For example, Cuesta College is looking at expanding its distance learning program, which offers online classes to students throughout the state. That’s a smart move.
Opening a new facility in the South County is not — at least not now.
Think of it this way: If a high school or elementary school district were to propose building a new campus during a period of declining enrollment, that would be considered a huge waste of resources, and we doubt that voters would bless such a move by approving a bond measure.
To be clear, we aren’t saying that Cuesta should abandon South County.
We urge that Cuesta continue its presence there by offering classes at the local high schools. If rent for those classrooms has become prohibitively expensive, look elsewhere.
We also might support developing a new Cuesta facility in South County that offers unique programs not already available at Hancock or at other Cuesta campuses.
But don’t build a generic center that would simply duplicate courses that students can access elsewhere.
It might improve Cuesta’s bottom line, but taxpayers should not be burdened with supporting new community college facilities without proof of a clear and convincing need.