A refocus of institutional priorities, the requirement for each matriculated student to have an educational plan, and five consecutive years of increasing budget cuts have made for challenging times for California’s community colleges.
These changes are having significant effects on both academic programs and student services. In an interview with Academic Leader, Paul Starer, dean of Language Arts and Learning Resource Center, and Laureen Balducci, dean of counseling, matriculation, admissions and records, and special projects, both of Foothill College, talked about how they are managing these challenges.
An overriding theme throughout many institutions is tighter budgets, which often entail difficult decisions, such as the elimination of faculty and staff positions and cuts to programs. “Clearly no budget cuts result in enthusiastic support. When you’re talking about reduced resources, you’re definitely dealing with people’s sense of the institution,” Starer says.
The institution’s identity, or at least the way it’s perceived by some, is being transformed by recommendations from the Student Success Task Force that have been adopted by the state legislature. “The legislature in California is very intent on defining, narrowing, and circumscribing what the missions of California community college systems are going to be moving forward,” Starer says, noting that the legislature has called for an emphasis on three essential functions: career/technical education, transfer, and basic skills.
The focus on these three areas comes at the expense of programs and services in other areas. The English department’s popular creative writing program, for example, has been scaled back to provide more sections of courses that are focused on helping students to transfer. In addition, the focus on providing courses that transfer within the California State University system has meant fewer offerings of courses outside the core, such as literatures of color.
“We don’t know what the impact will be in the diminishment of those services on the community’s sense of goodwill toward the college,” Starer says. “How much can the state force us to cut and refocus without losing the goodwill of the communities we serve?”
In addition to managing the potential negative reactions of the community, Starer has had to consider the effects of these changes on the faculty, whose goodwill is essential to the ability of the college to serve the community.
“This didn’t happen overnight. We had five successive years of increasing budget cuts. I can remember last year when I presented a very bleak budget picture to my two divisions. We were looking to cut maybe 25 FTEF from the entire college. To give you perspective, 25 full-time faculty would be the equivalent of the entire English department if they all came from one department. Luckily, that worst-case scenario never materialized,” Starer says.
Starer’s guiding principle in the face of these challenges is to be “up front and open about the sources of these changes and what they mean for the division and the departments, and talk about alternatives.”
For example, one alternative for the creative writing program is to offer these classes in a fee-for-service environment where students pay the full cost of instruction. “Discussing alternatives openly and frankly with the faculty has helped. They don’t feel ambushed by these changes. It’s not like we’re coming down and saying, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ We’ve really discussed how they can meet these new obligations and new focus,” Starer says.
In addition to talking about cuts, Starer says it’s important to plan for future budgets that are less austere. “Budget cuts, of necessity, make you talk about reduction of services, reduction of course offerings. We’re also strategizing for the future when there will be a more amenable budget situation when California eventually moves out of this downward trend. You have to plan for what will come back so you can strategically bring services back on board that are still in keeping with what the stated new focus of the community college system is,” Starer says.
Through shared governance, Foothill has created a process for discontinuing and creating programs. “While some departments have been discontinued on our campus, we were clear from the beginning that the process also had to include a way to bring new programs on board, particularly in dramatically changing fields such as computer science. … Those areas have to be very adroit at being able to develop programs that are serving the needs of students in Silicon Valley,” Starer says.
On the student services side of the institution, budget cuts have meant elimination of staff positions that have come just as the state legislature has mandated that each matriculated student has an educational plan, which means an increase in student services that need to be provided.
To manage this increase in workload amid reduced resources, the college has implemented two technologies—Ask Foothill, an online information service that provides automated answers to common questions, and DegreeWorks, a Web-based academic advising and degree audit tool.
Ask Foothill has reduced the number of phone calls from students asking routine questions and has provided essential information to students that helps them be more informed for meetings with admission and records and counseling staff.
Ask Foothill does not eliminate the need for staff, but it has enabled students to get timely answers to their questions, which helps in retention “because we have quite a few [colleges] in close proximity. Sometimes students get so frustrated. If they don’t get their questions answered right away, they’re just on to the next school,” Balducci says.
Having an educational plan for each matriculated student means an increased demand for counseling services. “We realized that’s an immense workload for counselors for every student to have an educational plan. We didn’t want this sort of factory farming of educational plans where the counselors do just technical or clerical work in building these educational plans. There is a counseling component to developing these plans—[counselors need to consider] things such as the students’ personal life, their academic skills, the amount of knowledge they have coming in, and their maturity level,” Balducci says.
The college implemented DegreeWorks to streamline the process of developing educational plans. Students have 24/7 access to DegreeWorks and can “play with the educational plan,” calculate GPA, and run different scenarios to see how a possible change of major might play out, which is useful given the fact that 65 percent of incoming students will change their major in the first year.
Peak usage of DegreeWorks and Ask Foothill typically occurs between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., providing convenience to students.
“We made it really clear to students, counselors, and everyone in the college that we’re not replacing counselors with this system. It’s a tool to assist them,” Balducci says.
With all the changes at Foothill, buy-in from faculty and staff has been essential to success. Getting buy-in comes from asking for feedback and input from those affected by the changes so they feel that they have some say as to how to meet the state requirements.
Collaboration among academic affairs, student services, and IT has helped morale, Balducci says. “We have this mentality that we’re all in it together. Let’s create something and use this time to really implement a strong system and weed out what wasn’t working before.”
The sense of a common purpose has helped maintain morale. Starer reminds faculty and staff that the budget cuts are not random or some “top-down Machiavellian plot to unseat the staff or the faculty.” Rather, he sees these changes as strategies to maintain the core of the institution. “I think if you’re up front with people that you have to conserve the core [because] hopefully that will conserve the entire entity, people may not like it, but at least they may understand why it’s taking place.”