State must redouble efforts to fully fund Merced, West Hills community colleges

Ag For Hire app student/creator Alex Avalos, right, and Clint Cowden, director of Farm of the Future at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, sit with a computer model of the app in this 2016 photo.
Ag For Hire app student/creator Alex Avalos, right, and Clint Cowden, director of Farm of the Future at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, sit with a computer model of the app in this 2016 photo. Fresno Bee file

The West Hills Community College District has grown its enrollment by 19 percent in the last five years. At Merced College, half of its 16,000 students are the first in their families to get higher education, and nearly 75 percent of those enrolled are on some form of financial aid.

The statistics reflect an important truth in Merced and the West Hills communities of Coalinga and Lemoore: Their community colleges play a critical role in helping young adults advance toward higher education and strong future careers.

So it was with excitement that administrators at those colleges learned about a new funding formula advanced by the community college chancellor’s office that would take into account such things as student diversity, economic background and other socioeconomic metrics when determining funding. Schools that had significant numbers of low-income or undocumented students, for example, would qualify for higher funding — like West Hills and Merced.

The administrators at those institutions budgeted for the 2018-19 year believing they would get that extra support, only to find out that the state office has miscalculated the cost of the formula and was coming up short in revenues it could divide up.

West Hills had to absorb a 10 percent cut, while Merced was going to get 4 percent less. Lassen Community College, in California’s northeast corner, took a 15 percent hit, the biggest such cut statewide.

“It was a gut punch of historic proportions,” says Stuart Van Horn, chancellor of the West Hills district.

Now the districts are scrambling to make ends meet. Come this fall, West Hills-Lemoore won’t offer career tech and entrepreneurial business programs it had planned on. All weekend classes, which help working people continue their education, are scrapped.

MER_AKValleyStatePrisonGrad_2 (3)
Merced Community College President Chris Vitelli, addressees inmate graduates during a graduation ceremony at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The ceremony recognized more than 60 inmates for their educational achievements including associate degrees, high school diplomas, general education development certifications and those who have completed career technical education programs. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

At Merced, vacant staff positions are being left open, and investments in technology are being deferred, as is some necessary maintenance. More importantly, while no subjects have been eliminated, in some instances there will be fewer classes offered.

This comes as the campuses in Coalinga, Lemoore and Merced have seen increases in graduation rates and in transfers to the California State University and University of California.

How can this situation be avoided going forward?

For one thing, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley must fulfill the vision of the new funding formula to fully support colleges in rural areas where student achievement trails peers in the urbanized coastal regions. The Central Valley, the far north and the Inland Empire in Southern California are such regions.

Second, there needs to be more representation of rural colleges on the committee that oversees the new funding formula. The needs of those areas must be represented.

California’s community colleges comprise the largest system of higher education in the nation, with 115 campuses serving 2.1 million students a year. For students in the San Joaquin Valley, community colleges are a critical starting point toward a college degree. The state chancellor and the system’s Board of Governors must not lose focus on their goal of adding funding to campuses where needs are greatest, such as Merced and West Hills.