SAN FRANCISCO — Student enrollment at California's community colleges has fallen dramatically in recent years as campuses slashed teaching staffs and course offerings in response to unprecedented cuts in state funding, according to a report released this week.
The report by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California details the impacts of $1.5 billion in state budget cuts between 2007 and 2012 on California Community Colleges, the nation's largest system of higher education.
During that period, enrollment within the 112-campus system dropped from 2.9 million to 2.4 million students, according to the report, which is based on official campus reports and interviews with more than 100 senior administrators.
Enrollment at Merced College dropped to 11,800 during fall 2012 from 13,037 during fall 2010, said Robin Shepard, spokesman for the college. Enrollment during fall 2011 was at 11,588, he said.
The decrease in enrollment could be due to a combination of factors, not just the budget cuts, said Anne Newins, vice president of student personnel at Merced College.
The enrollment declines were steepest among students returning to school after an absence and first-time college students, researchers said Tuesday. Enrollment of first-time students fell 5 percent even as the number of high school graduates in California rose 9 percent.
"The decline in access of first-time students is troubling, given California's long-standing need to increase college-going rates for new high school graduates, who are the work force for the future," said PPIC researcher Sarah Bohn, co-author of the report.
On the bright side, continuing students completed courses, earned passing grades and transferred to four-year institutions at higher rates, researchers said.
California's community college system, which is known for its low fees and open-access policies, is open to nearly all adults. But in recent years campuses have been forced to turn away hundreds of thousands of students who couldn't get into the classes they wanted.
Across the system, the number of academic year course offerings dropped 21 percent, summer classes fell 60 percent and class sizes swelled, researchers said. All types of courses were cut, but the drop was most significant for non-credit courses for enrichment or remediation.
The outlook for California Community Colleges has improved since November when voters approved Proposition 30, a ballot measure that temporarily raises the statewide sales tax and income taxes of high earners.
"With the passage of Prop. 30, community colleges are slowly starting to restore the access that was lost, but it will take years for the system to regain its original financial footing," said Paul Feist, the system's vice chancellor for communication.
That is evident at Merced College.
Marianne Tortorici, vice president of instruction at Merced College, said the school is trying to boost enrollment in several ways.
Officials are developing the class schedule for spring 2014 and hoping to increase the number of course offerings now that Proposition 30 has passed, Tortorici said.
"We are analyzing what kind of classes had long waits and what classes are needed for graduation," she said.
Previous experience has shown those classes typically are the general education courses, Tortorici said. "If we are wise and we add (courses) in the areas that serve the students needs, hopefully we'll be successful," she said.
Officials were not able to add more course offerings for fall 2013 because they were developing the class schedule and Proposition 30 hadn't passed, Tortorici said.
Now that the college expects additional funding, officials could add short-term classes this fall, she said. The short-term classes begin later in the semester, but classes are longer to balance out.