City colleges lack funds for extra frills and fun

At community colleges, some take aerobics instead of joining a gym. Learn to paint without pursuing a degree. Even enroll in a blackjack dealers' class to boost their odds as a player.

Now, given the state's budget crisis, the question is whether California's over-stuffed community colleges can focus on students with academic or career ambition and still afford to serve those with more casual interests.

Campuses across the state are analyzing course offerings and who enrolls. Locally, for example, the State Center Community College District is studying the number of students who repeat classes -- and may offer priority to those enrolling in a class for the first time.

Both the West Hills and College of the Sequoias districts plan to shift the cost of some classes to students. Under that system -- used on campuses throughout California -- community members generally pay the full price of instruction rather than the statewide $26 per-unit fee.

Officials at the Coalinga-based West Hills district said they want to protect options for the community -- but not at the expense of core classes. That's why students in self-supporting classes may pay $10 or $15 a month for an aerobics class or $45 for a monthlong course on computer basics for senior citizens.

Chancellor Frank Gornick said he hasn't heard complaints over price.

"As long as we can offer them and they can still get into their routine ... they'd rather do that than go without," he said.

California's 112 community colleges primarily offer vocational and academic instruction -- providing classes in basic skills and job-training and preparing students for transfer to four-year universities.

Over time, many colleges also developed classes for the community.

Now, the system is under pressure -- especially this year as demand grew and the statewide community college budget absorbed a $520 million cut. State officials and community college leaders have urged campuses to pare back or shift the cost of nonessential classes -- painting those as luxuries the system can't afford to subsidize.

At a convention in November, state Chancellor Jack Scott said: "It is not our job to provide physical exercise for adults who don't want to pay the fees to join an athletic club or provide a course for those who want to learn quilting."

Scott Lay, president and chief executive officer of the Community College League of California in Sacramento, said many campuses are performing "a course-by-course analysis of who is taking the course and whether it's needed for a larger educational goal."

Much of the scrutiny lands on art and recreation courses that could be cut or shifted to community education. The system "is in a rationing situation right now to simply meet the needs of new high school graduates and unemployed Californians," Lay said.

The Fresno-based State Center district is looking at whether students in the few noncredit classes offered should pay the full cost. Officials also are analyzing students who repeat classes.

Some may want to boost a grade or must repeat a class as part of an academic program. But others may be pursuing a hobby or exercise -- perhaps taking space from a student who needs the credits for transfer or a degree.

"We're taking a much harder look at what students need," said Chancellor Tom Crow.

At College of the Sequoias in Visalia, officials may shift more classes to community education, which generally requires students to bear the full cost of instruction. That system is similar to continuing education programs offered by University of California and California State University campuses.

Duncan Graham, vice president of academic services at COS, said the focus is on six to 10 classes -- such as backpacking -- that are "avocational and not core to the mission of community colleges."

At West Hills, the district is moving both community interest classes and some career technical education courses to a full-fee model. In some vocational classes, a Workforce Investment Board or potential employers help with the cost.

Carole Goldsmith, vice chancellor of educational services and work force development, said a few dozen classes -- such as aerobics and gaming -- have or will become self-supporting.

Many aerobics students are community members, she said. And classes aimed at training dealers for blackjack and Texas Hold'em games have wider appeal.

"All the people who are taking the courses are not taking them to learn how to be a dealer -- they want to become a better player," she said.

Many officials say they see value in classes offered for the community. Several pointed to physical-education classes -- calling it important to encourage exercise in a region known for an obesity problem.

College classes also can open up new horizons.

In the 1990s, local artist Margaret Hudson pursued a new craft -- painting -- but not a degree at Fresno City College. Already well-known for her brown clay sculptures, she wanted to work with color.

Hudson took two years of classes and now has a gallery for her paintings. It would be a shame if other community members didn't have a similar chance or if they couldn't afford to take courses, she said.

"There are so many of us at mid-life that need to do something, and this is an an opportunity to do something without a lot of financial strain," Hudson said.