If Not Now, When? The Time for a Student-Centered Funding Formula is Now

The Governor’s plan to transform the current community college funding model to a student-centered formula, for the first time in contemporary history of California’s community colleges, recognizes a reality West Hills has endured for nearly 86 years: rural districts serving large populations of disadvantaged students require more resources to help them to the completion finish line. At our rural Central Valley colleges in Coalinga, Lemoore, and Firebaugh, we take 100% of everybody in our 3,500 square mile district, where nearly 80% of our population lives at or below the poverty line, unemployment is high, and skills attainment is low.

A student-centered funding formula is the long overdue solution for rural districts that incur considerably more expenses to assist our most vulnerable students in reaching the finish line. The current funding formula is based largely on the number of full-time equivalent students enrolled – with no explicit fiscal incentives for colleges to support low-income populations and support their success. As an example, the regional Strong Workforce program was designed to do ‘more and better Career and Technical Education (CTE)’. Our share, based on enrollment, was up to five times less than neighboring urban districts. How can I grow CTE programs when I receive one-fifth the allocation provided to large colleges? How am I to respond to identified needs of business and industry with specialized, high-cost workforce training programs, let alone drive regional economies to enhance rural economic development initiatives? Why do we value selectivity over social mobility?

Although our colleges have done admirable work providing broad access, too few students who enter the system ultimately achieve their educational goals. Half of students fail to complete a certificate or degree after six years, with the rates for those historically underrepresented in higher education – especially low-income students and students of color – even more concerning and with gaps across regions of the state. The Central Valley is the epicenter of that conversation, which is very frustrating for our district because we have unwavering confidence that our students can achieve their goals if ample resources and services are in place to ensure that outcome. And, it’s not that our disadvantaged students cannot achieve their educational attainment goal; I know our students can if we recognize to do so requires more resources than realized with current funding models. I have often said the enrollment-based funding formula is why poor communities stay poor.

We must change that, especially in the Central Valley with 12% of the state’s population but only 6% of the state’s bachelor’s degree holders. The Vision for Success, which the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges accepted last year, calls for community colleges to move quickly to increase the number of students who complete programs and transfer, eliminate achievement gaps, and boost the number of career education students who become employed in their field of study. The Governor’s proposal, strengthened by the changes made in the May Revision, will further these goals by increasing resources for West Hills colleges that serve large numbers of low-income students and rewarding colleges that are improving student outcomes.

I know these are complex issues that require complex solutions. I know our role must increase the focus on social mobility and educational attainment to meet the state’s 21st-century workforce training needs. I also know that our students can contribute to the state’s competitiveness in a global marketplace. I have every confidence our 850 employees will outwork others because we believe in the valley and we believe in our students. The student-focused funding plan in the Governor’s budget proposal is about providing students who have faced barriers to success with additional support to achieve their goals.

Chancellor Oakley has been working with community college presidents and chancellors, as well as college chief business officials, for the past several months to construct a new formula.

Their work is largely represented by the Governor’s May Revision proposal. This formula moves our system in the right direction. It includes a two-year “hold harmless” provision, and it proposes that no community college receive less than a 2.71 percent increase in 2018-2019 compared to the current year (an adjustment equal to the change in the cost-of-living). Further, it uses a three-year average to smooth changes in enrollment, and it includes outcomes measures that take into account the many missions of our community colleges. Moving forward, the state and the system revise the formula to address unforeseen issues that may arise.

Now is the time to act. Now is the time to believe the best is yet to come for the citizenry of the West Hills Community College District. Every Californian deserves access to a community college that is designed to help them achieve their goals. A strategic approach to finance is a key part of making that happen.

Stuart Van Horn, Ed.D.
Chancellor, West Hills Community College District