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No end in sight for declining enrollment at Santa Rosa Junior College

The robust economy, record-low unemployment and changing demographics make it unlikely that SRJC will regain the thousands of students lost since the recession. What does than mean for venerable, century-old college?|

Santa Rosa Junior College, a century- old institution with Ivy League-style brick buildings and stately oak trees on its Mendocino Avenue campus, is about to reopen a popular theater transformed by a $32 million renovation and break ground on a $78 million science and technology classroom building.

The school that has served 1.7 million students since opening in 1918 in a Santa Rosa High School basement still has millions of dollars remaining in voter-approved bond funds to continue developing what President Frank Chong calls “the campus for the next generation.”

But a cloud created by declining enrollment - down 20% since 2011 - shrouds the venerable college, prompting cuts in faculty and curriculum that make it harder for students to get the classes they need and boosting class sizes beyond recommended levels.

The alarming trend isn't limited to Santa Rosa Junior College. Declining enrollment pervades the state's community college system, the largest in nation, and is also affecting the budgets of public primary and secondary schools statewide.

The downturn shows no end in sight, with many factors at SRJC that Chong and others say are beyond their control - the prolonged economic expansion, the county's shrinking school-age population and sky-high housing costs, exacerbated by the loss of thousands of homes to the 2017 fires.

According to some on campus, the fallout at SRJC - conceived at the end of World War I to give Sonoma County's farm kids a pathway to UC Berkeley - threatens to undermine it as a launchpad to higher education and quality vocational training.

Recent changes, including cuts to instruction and additions to class size, have “jeopardized our legacy of excellence,” said Sean Martin, a philosophy instructor and president of the All Faculty Association, the union that represents instructors.

Chong, 63, who took the helm of SRJC in 2012, just after the enrollment decline began, says the college remains an exceptional Sonoma County institution, tops among all community colleges in the state for its transfer rate of students into the University of California system. Its recent initiatives include a pioneering commercial hemp cultivation project at its Forestville farm and plans for a cutting-edge regional construction trades center in Petaluma.

“The future of SRJC will be one of quality, not quantity,” he said. “The college will continue to be ‘the go to' choice for affordable quality education for both transfer and workforce training in the region.”

But the cuts keep coming. This semester, SRJC put on hiatus a flagship program that has trained rangers at city, county and national parks for more than four decades, citing declining enrollment and an anticipated budget crunch.

Chong, along with board members, instructors, boosters and student leaders, says the surging economy is largely to blame, pointing to a similar pattern across the state and nation.

“I don't pray for a recession, but it's good for our enterprise, higher education,” he said.

The student decline dates from the wake of the recession. Enrollment in the state's community college system of 115 schools peaked in 2008 at 2.7 million; by 2012, it had sunk 2.1 million, a 22% drop. It held steady at around 2.1 million through 2018, but enrollment at SRJC continued to fall, fueled almost entirely by the loss of part-time students.

Chong, a former Obama administration appointee who has worked 28 years in higher education, was matter of fact about what he sees as the root cause of the trend.

“When the economy goes north our enrollment goes south,” said Chong, the fifth SRJC president - and first nonwhite top boss in the college's history.

Lekkyes Dakwakas, SRJC student body president, echoed Chong's assessment: When good-paying jobs are readily available, prospective students opt for a paycheck rather than lectures, labs and homework, he said.

“The better the economy is doing, the fewer students we have in school,” he said.

In the face of a robust economy, with the county's unemployment rate at a minuscule 2.4%, college administrators say they are unlikely to regain through recruitment the thousands of students lost since the recession.

By sheer headcount, part-time students dropped from a peak of 32,115 in 2008 to 18,389 this year, according to SRJC records. The count of full-time students, by comparison, has held fairly steady, slipping by just 186 students over the same period, to 4,266 students this year.

Overall enrollment, which blends full-time and part-time students, dropped from 21,316 in 2011 to 17,033 students this year, the lowest level in at least two decades.

Slash in budget and classes

The plunging student population has exacerbated an ongoing budget crisis that dealt Chong two years ago with the most acute crisis of his tenure. It came amid a plan by his administration to slash half of all summer classes in 2018 to close part of a $6.5 million budget deficit.

The move, announced just days before summer registration, spawned virulent outcry among faculty and students. Days later, the Academic Senate passed a vote of no confidence in Chong but stopped short of calling for his resignation.

Chong rescinded the plan and apologized repeatedly for not consulting faculty or student representatives beforehand.

“I didn't just screw up a little,” he said in an interview at the time. “I screwed up royally.”

But he also cautioned that SRJC could not continue to offer all the education programs it maintained when enrollment was more robust. Under his leadership, the college has continued to reduce class offerings and downsize its academic workforce in a bid to align expenses with revenue, including funds tied to enrollment.

The college is offering 5,756 classes this year, down 35%, from the schedule of 8,814 classes offered during the recession in 2008 and 5% less than last year.

The faculty, measured by full-time equivalent instructors, numbers 1,090 this year, down about 350, or 24%, from 2008.

The cuts have eliminated some courses, reduced the frequency that others are offered and generally increased class size, said Martin, the union leader. The union advocates shifting staff cuts to other areas, including management, he said, calling the administration “still pretty top-heavy.”

“Faculty always have taken the immediate hit from lower enrollment,” said Martin, noting that layoffs hit part-time instructors hardest.

The current budget of $180.7 million is actually higher than in previous years, including during the 2018 crisis, when it was $161 million. That discrepancy is partly the result of a $7.2 million boost in fire relief funding that campus officials say is meant to freeze the budget at pre-fire levels.

“That gives us some breathing room, or else we'd be operating at a deficit,” Chong said. The relief funding expires in 2022.

The 2017 wildfires destroyed more than 5,300 homes in the county, including 5% of Santa Rosa's housing stock and the homes of about 800 students.

The drop in total enrollment since 2017 is similar, reflecting a loss of more than 700 students, fueled by declining part-time headcount, records show. In the same period, Sonoma County lost an estimated 4,700 residents.

Students not seeking degrees

College officials attribute the drop in part-time students to a mix of factors - that more would-be students are working amid the economic expansion; a state ban on students repeating popular courses; and a shift on campus that has more part-time students taking classes without credit, including language classes for English learners.

Eric Thompson, a religion instructor who is president of SRJC's Academic Senate, lamented the state decision to cut off funding for repeated enrollment in “lifelong learning” classes, contributing to the enrollment decline. The classes, primarily in physical education and the arts, were popular with retirees and others who wanted to improve their health and satisfy their curiosity rather than seeking jobs or degrees.

“Given the demographics of our county, that's a population we should be attracting rather than repelling,” he said.

Chong said the decision in 2013 was a state cost-cutting measure in the face of a budget crunch. “I just think it's wrong-headed,” he said, noting that exercise classes can help seniors contend with various maladies.

Declining enrollment prompted a dramatic move recently by the private Empire College School of Business in Santa Rosa, where officials said they would accept no new students and shut down when the current class of 220 graduates in June 2021.

Roy Hurd, the school's president since 1986, said enrollment had dropped 25% in the past three years, citing the same factors as the junior college: high employment, shrinking student population and pricey housing.

The private business school, founded in 1961 by the late civic leader Henry Trione, has produced more than 10,000 graduates. Empire College's School of Law will continue with growing enrollment, Hurd said, noting that it serves older students, most with bachelor's degrees or more education.

Rising and falling enrollment “is a fact of life,” said Dan Condron, an SRJC Foundation board member and former Sonoma State University administrator. “We've gone through the cycle many times. It's a national trend. There's nothing unique about it in Santa Rosa.”

The foundation, established in 1969, manages a $57 million endowment and provides more than $4 million a year to assist students and academic programs.

Community college enrollment nationwide peaked at more than 8 million students in the fall of 2010 - 10 months after the jobless rate topped out at 10% - and then dropped by more than 1 million students by 2017, according to a report by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Trade, housing options

In addition to the 115-acre Santa Rosa campus, SRJC has a 40-acre Petaluma campus, the 20-acre Windsor Public Safety Training Center and 365-acre Shone Farm in Forestville, home of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department.

To boost enrollment and address the county's housing crunch, SRJC officials point to a nearly $9 million regional construction trades center aimed at producing up to 500 skilled job seekers a year. Scheduled for completion on the Petaluma campus in two years, the program was largely funded by a $7 million federal disaster relief grant.

The college broke ground at Shone Farm last year with the first and only California community college hemp cultivation program, harvesting a legal crop that could be worth about $100,000. Enrollment in hemp courses is at 103% of capacity and the training applies as well to the state's cannabis industry.

And the college has made its first major play in the housing market in generations, planning an apartment project on campus with a capacity of about 400 students. Groundbreaking is expected in December, with completion anticipated in August 2022. The last student housing facility was demolished in 2003.

“I think we're getting onto the right track,” said Jordan Burns, chairman of the SRJC Board of Trustees. The college can stem its enrollment losses by “offering the best education and career path for our students now,” he said.

SRJC boasts the top success rate at 80% for students transferring to University of California schools, compared with a 45% rate for the entire community college system.

“We're still putting out quality graduates in record numbers,” Chong said.

But the countervailing trends include the aging of county residents and a shrinking student-age population.

More than one-quarter of the county's population is 60 and over - up more than 45,000 people since 2010 - and the number of residents ages 15 to 19, essentially the high school population, dropped 14%, from 34,539 in 2008 to 29,764 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census.

Going forward, enrollment in California's public schools, from kindergarten through 1 2th grade, is expected to drop 7% in the next 10 years, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report this month. Sonoma County school enrollment is forecast to fall by 15%, the sixth largest decline among 58 counties.

Dakwakas, a fourth-year student majoring in computer science and business, said the course crunch at SRJC means classes in high demand - such as anatomy and chemistry - fill up quickly during registration, making it harder to complete a degree in two years.

Checking community colleges around the state, Dakwakas said he found in many cases it takes three years. “There's pretty much nothing we can do from our end,” he said.

Chong said he was aware of many of the challenges facing the college when he came on board, with recruitment among the toughest.

“I could see it was going to be hard to grow enrollment,” said Chong, whose current salary is $340,792 with $115,185 in benefits, making him one of the highest paid public officials in the county.

Chong enjoys vocal support from board members, boosters and faculty. He said he is not concerned that his tenure has been overshadowed by enrollment losses.

“I don't define bigger as better,” he said. “We have maintained our legacy of excellence.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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