Who Comes First?

A debate over priorities at California’s community colleges is heating up, as the system considers putting more emphasis on first-time students who are working toward a credential or transferring to a four-year institution. The debate has deep national relevance, as the "completion agenda" may hinge on the 2.6 million students who attend the state’s community colleges.

Driving the discussion in California is a budget crisis that forced two-year colleges to turn away 140,000 students in 2009-10. Next year could be worse, with a $400 million budget cut that will freeze out an estimated 200,000 students due to course reductions.

“The demand is obviously outstripping the supply,” said Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, who notes that first-time students would have comprised all but 7,000 of the 140,000 recently denied entry.

Amid this bleak financial backdrop, a state task force is seeking to boost student success. In a report finalized last month, the group called for the system to be more intentional about “rationing” access. Students who are most likely to earn a degree or certificate should have enrollment priority, the task force said, while those who meander or accumulate large numbers of credits without a degree should go to the back of the line.

The report has touched a nerve, and drawn criticism from students, faculty members and a few administrators at community colleges. At play is the state’s commitment to making higher education inexpensive and accessible for everyone. By giving priority to some students, many say the colleges will neglect part of their broad local responsibilities.

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors is considering the recommendations. If they endorse the report, it goes to the Legislature in the next two months.

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