Enrollment in California's community colleges has plunged to a 20-year low as budget-strapped campuses have had to slash classes and instructors, according to a report released Monday.
Course offerings are at a 15-year low, dropping 21% from 2007-08 to 2011-12, with music and dance, education and business programs particularly hard hit.
The report, published by the Public Policy Institute of California, charts a system staggering under the weight of unprecedented funding cuts: $1.5 billion from 2007-08 to 2011-12, considerably larger than those during past economic downturns.
The state's 112 two-year colleges are the nation's largest system of public higher education, serving about 2.4 million students each year. The system has been criticized in recent decades for a weak record of student success, with many ill-prepared students stuck in remedial courses or dropping out.
But its inability in recent years to serve the numbers of students who want to study should be of equal concern, said Sarah Bohn, a Public Policy Institute research fellow and coauthor of the report.
"All of the conversation has been focusing on student success and rightly so, but the most dramatic result is the participation rate," she said. "Access to higher education is really important to consider in tandem with student success."
The report found that between 2008-09 and 2011-12, overall participation rates — students per 1,000 state residents age 15 or over — declined by 21% to levels not seen since the early 1990s.
During roughly the same period, total enrollment declined by more than 500,000 students.
First-time students and those returning after an absence of one or more semesters suffered the sharpest declines in enrollment as priorities shifted to favor continuing students seeking degrees or transfer to a four-year university.
Recently adopted policies that give registration priority to new students who participate in orientation sessions and develop an education plan will improve access, said Paul Feist, the community college system's vice chancellor for communications.
"But this report is correct in warning that it's going to take many years to regain the footing we once had," he said.
The report contains some good news: The number of students who complete a course, earn a passing grade and transfer to a four-year school are up slightly among all ethnic and racial groups.
And voter approval in November of Proposition 30, which temporarily raises sales taxes and property taxes on higher earners, could reverse some trends. Community colleges will receive $210 million in additional funding for 2012-13.
But current funding levels are still too little to achieve goals, the report suggests, and colleges should look to additional sources of funding such as parcel taxes, lowering the income threshold for students receiving system-wide fee-waivers, as well as charging higher fees for those who can pay — a controversial proposal that is opposed by Chancellor Brice Harris.