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May 29, 2012 6:12 PM Getting Academic Help to Those Who Need it Most

By Daniel Luzer

An odd rule in the California higher education system is likely to hit yet another aspect of the community colleges pretty hard. While budget cuts have been hurting the community colleges for years, another problem is going to come up soon: the academic counseling centers won’t worry very effectively.

Budget cuts mean that the academic counseling center at a place like San Diego Miramar College is a zoo. The lines can be 25 students long. Students wait two hours to speak to a counselor for 25 minutes. There’s one solution to this: hire more staff. But it probably can’t happen.

According to an article by Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed:

California’s counseling shortage, however, is severe enough that only more advisers can fix it, most people agree. But state policies may make that difficult.
Standing in the way is the so-called “50 percent law,” a regulation that requires community colleges to spend half of their educational budgets on instructor compensation. When budgets are tight, which is certainly the case now, it’s nearly impossible to add counselors without adding faculty members to keep that 50/50 spending split intact, according to some community college leaders and higher education experts.

The rule exists to prevent colleges from overspending on unnecessary administrative staff, but in this case it’s becoming a huge problem. Many community college students, after all, really need academic counselors, who can help them navigate class scheduling and planning for the rest of their academic career, which may be quite unclear to them.

No one intended to prevent students from getting the help they need. In an ideal world there would be plenty of room in the budget to hire additional staff and keep everything running effectively.

The problem in the California community college system, however, is that the state has cut the budget so severely that colleges are starting to run up against mandatory spending rules.

Some colleges are adding group advising time and online advising. Experts say this is the least effective form of advising, however.

Unlike budget cuts, however, which can spark protests from students, this problem has a much less visible outcome.

If students don’t get a chance to meet with an academic advisor, if they have to wait for two hours to meet to talk with someone, they just won’t go. And so they’ll be less likely understand and plan their schedule properly. And that’s why people drop out of community college.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer