Friday, May 23, 2008

CSUEB will try again to expand Concord offerings

Though rebuffed by skeptical community college leaders last year, Cal State East Bay administrators again will ask the same group to permit expanded use of the university's Concord campus.

For the third time since October, university leaders will make their case Wednesday to the Contra Costa Community College District.

The same tough questions are likely to face the university administrators, who want to offer first- and second-year courses in Concord. And the contentious issue has picked up political steam, with Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, opposing other state and local politicians on the matter.

State regulators require universities to gain support from nearby two-year colleges before offering lower-division courses at a branch campus, as Cal State East Bay wants to do in Concord. The university's main campus is in Hayward, which the administrators say keeps as many as 2,500 Contra Costa County students from staying in the East Bay for college.

"We've heard people say, 'I commute to San Francisco State because it's easier to get across the bridge than to get to Hayward,'" said Linda Dalton, Cal State East Bay's vice president for planning and enrollment. "We think that's a drain, especially on central and east Contra Costa County."

The university may want to keep students in the East Bay, but the community college district wants to keep them on its campuses for lower-division courses.

Cal State East Bay has Advertisementproposed bringing as many as 270 freshmen per year to the underused Concord campus, which fills in the evening but sits mostly empty during the day.

University leaders want to persuade the college board that they will attract students different from those who attend Contra Costa County's three community colleges. But board members and district administrators have criticized the contention, saying there's no proof the colleges would not lose students to the Concord campus.

Community colleges depend heavily on enrollment for funding, and the Contra Costa district has lost $10 million since 2002 because of lower attendance, said Helen Benjamin, the district's chancellor.

"I think those students make a conscious choice about where they want to go to college," she said Wednesday, adding that students leave the East Bay for reasons other than the lack of a nearby campus.

The battle over the Concord campus has exposed political and internal divides. The college district received nearly identical letters supporting Cal State from Contra Costa County Supervisor Susan Bonilla of Concord, Contra Costa County school Superintendent Joseph Ovick, Democratic Sen. Tom Torlakson of Antioch and Republican Assemblyman Guy Houston of San Ramon.

Those letters were countered by one sent Thursday by Miller, the influential chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Miller expressed his "reservations and concerns" and urged community college leaders to withhold action.

The dispute also led to the abrupt January departure of Concord campus dean Peter Wilson, who resigned after failed attempts to gain the district's support.

Board members have said they were upset that they were given such an important role in the approval, that their job is to protect the district. Community colleges receive far less money per student than do state universities, board member John Nejedly said.

"I don't like to look at it as competitive," he said, "but we have an established district, and we have to survive on a much smaller budget than they do."

Dalton said the university dreams of Contra Costa County becoming a "higher-education district" in which students can attend their institution of choice.

"When you have an entertainment district," she said, "if you only have one theater with one screen, you don't have much to share."

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