Job-focused training crucial for colleges

Community college leaders are betting that a renewed focus in tracking the Bay Area’s employment needs and increased state money will help reverse a three year decline in full-time student enrollment.

Since 2002-03 the San Mateo County Community College District’s enrollment has dropped by 7 percent to 19,700 students, district records show, costing it about $3,700 in teaching funds for each student. To blame for the enrollment decline is the relatively steady growth in jobs in the Bay Area, and statewide increases in community college fees, according to officials.

Community colleges statewide have mirrored the county’s trend, although to a lesser extent. The state chancellor’s office estimates full-time enrollment dropped by about 3 percent in 2002-03 alone, after years of uninterrupted growth. The slump came after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised fees 136 percent, from $11 to $26 per unit, to help close a massive state budget gap, according to the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office.

“We had very high enrollment following the 2000-01 dot-com bust when people needed to learn a new skill or were out of a job and had time to go back to school,” said San Mateo County Community College District spokeswoman Barbara Christensen. While the district isn’t looking to bring back an economic recession, three years of declines have sparked concern from administrators and trustees.

“There is a renewed emphasis on understanding what the emerging careers are in San Mateo County, [and developing] the curriculum needed to prepare people for those needs,” Christensen said.

To that end, the district recently hired Jien Luan as vice chancellor for education services and planning. Luan has begun a comprehensive analysis to determine what jobs are most needed and is working with leading industries to fill the demand. The last time such an analysis was done was 1996, Luan said.

District administrators say the survey will lead to more programs such as one recently approved by trustees to add curriculum for insurance claims representatives, an area in which insurance firms have said they could use more trained professionals, Christensen said.

“[Increasing full-time enrollment] is absolutely a priority,” said district President of the Board of Trustees Richard Holober. In addition to insurance industry training, the district is looking to add courses in computer animation, he said.

The district is also working to augment concurrent enrollment classes for high school students and expand online courses, officials said.

The biggest factor in turning sagging enrollment figures around, however, could be an additional $14 million from the state over the next two years. Legislation that more fairly distributes funds based on full-time enrollment and fixed facilities costs took effect in July and means the district will receive about $4,900 per full-time student, compared to $3,700 in 2005, said Kathy Blackwood, district chief financial officer.

“With more money we’re going to be able to include more classes and attract more students,” Christensen said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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