Saturday, May 7, 2016

How Lowering Class-Size Could Help Prevent Enrollment Decrease (And Solve The Budget Crisis)

Laney College is experiencing a budget crisis. The Governor’s latest budget proposal projects $5 million less revenue got the district, which will significantly impact our ability to provide services to our students.

The state and district place the primary blame for this budget crisis on decreasing student enrollment. This is partially true, given that the state’s current funding apportionment ratio funds the college according to the number of Full-time equivalent students (FETS), but the state’s funding model shares some blame for the decreasing enrollment. By mandating that Laney’s standard class size be 35 students, in contrast to the smaller size classes at more expensive private and state colleges that our students are competing with and preparing for, this model has lead to a policy in which classrooms are considered more “productive,” and are rewarded, the more overcrowded they are.

One direct result of the over-crowded classrooms is an increased student dropout rate. A higher percentage of students drop out or fail an overcrowded class than a smaller class. Yet the state’s funding model fails to take this into account. Because the state determines funding based on enrollment in the first place, yet, because of overcrowding, creates a climate that increases attrition (decreases retention), its internal contradictions have created what Bonnie Oviatt calls a “self-perpetuating spiral that can tear a community college apart.”[1] This is a warning I take very seriously, and we need to find a way to break the cycle.

Recognizing this self-defeating structural flaw, the district set up a task force to examine and “fine-tune” the District’s budget allocation model in October 2015 to help ensure that Laney receives its fair share of funds from the district. In the meantime, funding will continue to drop as enrollment does, so Former President, Elnora Webb, has “hired two people on short-term contracts to do outreach to bring in more students.” Outreach, and strengthening connections with K-12 schools to help provide alternatives to the school-to-prison pipeline, is indeed crucial and could help contribute to decreased drop-out rates for K-12 schools as well as increased enrollment for Laney, and hopefully these outreach efforts can continue beyond the short-term contract. Yet more can be done.

More recently, Laney’s interim President, Patricia Stanley, has established an Enrollment Management Task Force to “get a feel for what’s going on” and eventually from an Enrollment Management Committee to “put together a 3-5 year plan to raise enrollment.” I sincerely hope they are willing to listen to students and faculty who already have a feel for what’s going on more than many an outside consultant. And, judging from my interactions with students, increasing retention can do more to solve the crisis than outreach. I devoutly hope any proposed Enrollment Management Committee considers devoting as many resources as they do to recruitment efforts to making student retention (limiting attrition) a priority in any strategy for increasing enrollment. As Laney Professor Alicia Cabellero-Christiansen puts it, “you can get people in the doors, but if they don’t show up the next fall what good did it do?”

Since I began teaching at Laney in 2008, we have had very high attrition rates, especially among African American students, which studies have confirmed. Although many are resigned to the “inevitability” of this at Laney, the school is receiving equity funding to study ways to address this inequity crisis, which overlaps with the funding crisis in important ways. Overcrowded classrooms, along with the underfunded support services, contribute to high drop out rates, and lack of equity.

Many of our students need much more one-on-one attention to help them compensate for the disadvantages their underfunded K-12 schools left them at. Recognizing this, many of our professors put in longer hours to meet one-on-one outside of classroom hours. But many students simply cannot make themselves available to meet with teachers outside of class time---because many work several jobs or have families to attend to, and increasingly longer commutes. It’s a struggle enough for them to attend regularly scheduled classes. Thus, teachers who recognize the students’ need for more one-on-one time are virtually forced to take class time away from group work, and this can negatively impact the class’ ability to fulfill the requirement of the course’s SLO. It also can play a significant impact on decreasing retention (increasing dropouts). Yet there’s a way that teachers could provide more one-on-one time without sacrificing necessary group work.

Clearly, students would be better served if such classes were capped at 25 students, as they often are at the more expensive private schools, and not cancelled if they only have 15 students. Doing so will not only increase student equity and success, but will help increase enrollment and, in the long term, be more fiscally responsible than the current economic model based on a short-term bottom line that defines overcrowded high-attrition classrooms as “productive.”

In the short term, under the existing state model in which funding is based on enrollment, reducing class sizes will certainly not save the school or district any money. Yet, by providing better student-to-teacher ratios and more one-on-one, it will decrease the drop-out rate which, in the long term, will contribute to a robust, and more stable fiscal environment with increased student equity.

It may seem to be counterintuitive, or go against conventional wisdom, to take seriously a demand for less crowded classrooms even during good times, let alone during a budget crisis. Yet the Enrollment Management Task Force should consider a 3-5 year plan that would 1) recalibrate the existing state funding ratio to immediately reduce class sizes and, if need be, open more course sections to serve unmet student/consumer needs; 2) allocate at least as many resources to the retention of existing students as on the recruitment of new students; 3) guarantee no student tuition increases during this restructuring period.

Certainly, fiscal solvency doesn’t have to be opposed to the human aspects of education; teachers and students don’t have to be opposed to Human Resources and essential administrators. But we need more innovative thinking, and our students—even in basic skills classes---have some innovative ideas that need to be put on the table about what a “productive” class and a “productive” school is. The administration need to recognize and honor these ideas, which, if we think long-term rather than short-term, could enhance Laney’s reputation as a cosmopolitan world-class community college, and get us out of this budget crisis on firmer footing than we were before it began.

Chris Stroffolino,
English Department

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