Los Rios district handles explosive growth by adding centers throughout region
Sacramento Business Journal
- by Kelly Johnson Staff writer
With 84,115 students, the Los Rios Community College District would be the largest city in Wyoming, Vermont, West Virginia, Delaware or Maine.
And it's growing fast. The district's enrollment increase of 57.5 percent over the past decade would rival population growth in all but the nation's two fastest-growing metro areas -- Las Vegas and Naples, Fla. -- for the decade ending with the 2000 Census.
That explosive expansion demands a commensurate expansion in services and space. But just as cities have found they can't keep up with the demands of swelling population by building bigger roads and more parking lots, Los Rios isn't responding by building more college campuses, with their big land footprint and high capital costs.
Los Rios, the state's second-largest community college district by enrollment, instead is developing satellite centers. The 2,400-square-mile district has a $340 million budget this year; it's investing $140 million over the next 15 years to get closer to students through mini-campuses near their homes and jobs. New, larger centers are planned to replace sites in West Sacramento, Davis and Rancho Cordova, along with a brand new center in Elk Grove and an expanded north Natomas satellite.
The approach is a version of the "smart growth" tactics applied by fast-growing cities, which seek to put homes, jobs and shopping close together to reduce traffic congestion.
Los Rios projects it will grow to 112,000 students by 2015; it added 7,000 over the past year, from fall 2006 to fall 2007. The reasons include national demographics, with a swelling population of young adults at the typical age for college, and the even more rapid growth in Greater Sacramento's population.
Even excluding the 2007 jump, Los Rios saw 32.5 percent growth in total enrollment from fall 1997 to 2006, the most recent data that can be compared across the state. The 18,382-student bump was higher than any district in California except Los Angeles Community College District, and represented almost one of every 10 students added to the system statewide. That growth rate tops the percentage rise for enrollment in the University of California (26.2 percent) and California State University (21.3 percent) systems over the same period.
The district is looking to accommodate those students through infill development while reducing traffic and air pollution. The strategy makes it easier for students to incorporate higher education into their lives, with the benefits a more highly educated work force can bring to the region's economy. The numbers show enrollment at the satellite centers is growing faster than at the full-scale campuses.
"I don't have to waste 30 minutes driving," said Oleksandr Ishchuk, a 21-year-old immigrant from Ukraine, who lives four minutes from the Natomas Educational Center, a branch of American River College. He's saving time and gas money while he completes his general education requirements, and he feels the center has a welcoming environment, he said. His mother, father and brother also take classes there, and he and his mother work in the office.
The satellite strategy has advantages for Los Rios, too. A full-blown new campus requires 150 acres, assuming that much land can be found, while satellites can be much smaller and may be leased, providing more flexibility. Folsom Lake College, the district's fourth full campus, took 14 years to build. The Natomas center took three years from concept to the opening of its first phase, said district chancellor Brice Harris.
On the down side, satellites can't offer all the programs and services of a main campus and some center students say they miss the diversity and experiences of a larger campus.
'Responsible business strategy'
Los Rios has embraced the satellite model more than many other college and university systems, but branch campuses have become a trend as colleges try to be more accessible to students, said George Boggs, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges.
The trend started because colleges began viewing students as customers, said Lee Burch, a vice president and higher education group leader with Carter & Burgess in Houston.
Students are more likely than in years past to be older, working and raising a family while attending school. They're also more likely to attend two or three colleges before graduating. Because they have so much else going on in their lives, these students need convenience, including more night and weekend classes.
So colleges and universities have gotten more creative with the places in which they offer instruction, Burch said, sometimes sharing space. Sierra College and California State University Sacramento, for example, share space in Roseville. Colleges also are leasing space in strip centers for branch centers, and building larger centers as demand grows -- a good summary of the Los Rios strategy.
Los Angeles Community College District is scouting for sites to greatly expand its satellite locations. It opened its first satellite, South Gate, 30 years ago; it now has about 5,000 students. But it didn't open a second until last year. A former bakery is being renovated for a third. Now, the district is considering one or two satellites for each of its nine colleges, eventually for as many as a dozen locations.
"We're shopping for probably half a dozen right now," said Larry Eisenberg, the district's executive director for facilities, planning and development.
The district's main motivation in this strategy is to offer an education to people who wouldn't otherwise attend because they have no cars or can't make transit work on the region's disjointed bus systems. Most South Gate students walk to school.
It's also a "responsible business strategy," Eisenberg said, given that a consultant found the centers would pay for themselves. And if one location doesn't work out, it's easier to ditch a lease than property the district owned and developed.
Riverside Community College District in Southern California, which saw enrollment grow 21.7 percent from fall 1997 to fall 2006, also is considering additional satellites to get closer to potential students and to serve the fast-growing population, said Jim Parsons, associate vice chancellor. The district has two "annexes," as the district calls them, plus two smaller program-specific locations.
Close to home in more ways than one
Many of Los Rios' centers have high enrollments of immigrants who seek to learn English before they enter the work force. For them, the centers in or near their own communities provide a more intimate, comfortable setting with others who speak their language and also are struggling to learn English.
The Los Angeles district opened its latest satellite location last year in Rosemead for East Los Angeles College. Part of the motivation for the center, just 3 miles from the main campus, was to serve the area's Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, a population that the college previously did not attract, college president Robert Isomoto said.
The makeup of each Los Rios branch location reflects the community it serves. West Sacramento and Rancho Cordova have large percentages of students for whom English is not their primary language. At those centers, demand for English-as-a-second language (ESL) classes is strong.
The Davis center, on the other hand, sees classrooms filled primarily with traditional-age students and doesn't offer ESL. Natomas has many night students and skews older than its parent campus, American River College. Some students work in downtown Sacramento and pop off the freeway after work for a class before heading home to Yuba or Sutter counties.
Other students feel more comfortable in the smaller settings, including young students from rural communities who opt for the El Dorado center in Placerville. The psychological barrier presented by a large college or four-year university would be too great for some of these students.
"Because we are kind of remote, for many of the residents in our community, this center is critical," said Dale van Dam, dean of the center. If it didn't exist, "I have a feeling that a lot would delay significantly or not go to college at all."
"Convenient" is students' most frequent description of the satellite centers. They like the short commutes from home, the lack of lines and free parking right near class. Some students said they get to know instructors and staff better.
"Folks can call me directly" said Don Palm, dean of the Davis Center. By overseeing a center instead of working at a larger campus, he feels like he can make more of a difference and "create possibilities for people" at the center. He found himself bogged down in administrative tasks when he was chair of history and political science at Sacramento City College.
The satellites also provide opportunities for workers to find some work-life balance by allowing them to pursue interests beyond academics and career. Physical education classes -- everything from yoga to volleyball to self-defense -- also are big draws for people in the district who otherwise wouldn't think of returning to college.
"P.E. is sort of a good entree for us," said Whitney Yamamura, Natomas Center dean. Deans of several Los Rios centers said they'd fill up additional physical education classes if they could offer more of them.
As a benefit to the broader community, the centers also help keep older people engaged by offering a multitude of enrichment classes for lifelong learners.
For the business community, satellite centers can boost the supply of trained workers. An uneducated single mom might consider improving her situation through college if a school is nearby and tuition is affordable, Harris said.
Two years ago, Christy Tatum, a 27-year-old single mom of three kids, had placed her youngest in day care for the first time. As she wondered what she'd do with her first child-free day, the Placerville resident drove past the El Dorado Center and decided, on the spur of the moment, to enroll. Perhaps she'd pursue nursing, Tatum thought at the time.
Without the center being in her community, Tatum said, it would have taken her much longer to decide to further her education, let alone drive miles to Folsom or Sacramento to begin classes. With her kids only five minutes away from the satellite campus, she can use the time she would have spent driving to another college to take an extra class each term.
The small mini-campus also was less threatening for Tatum, who hadn't attended classes since high school. Everyone from the teachers to the dean were approachable, she said.
Now, Tatum takes classes at the center and at Folsom Lake College, and works up to 20 hours per week at the El Dorado Center. Her next goal is Pepperdine University. Later she wants to go to medical school. Her 9-year-old son has already started talking about going to college himself.
Without the satellite center, she said, "I would never have gotten to know my true potential."
The downside of dispersal
For some, the centers can feel too removed, too protected and in some cases, lack the diversity of a main campus.
Sitting in an ESL class in West Sacramento in March, Andrey Shafigullin said the satellite was close to his home and work, but he preferred the diversity of the main campus of Sacramento City College. Most of the students at the center came from Russia or Eastern Europe, and he shared the class with four family members. Shafigullin, who is in his early 20s, is no longer a student at the center.
By design, branch campuses don't provide a full array of courses, facilities and services. They can provide significant offerings, most of them geared toward students wanting to fulfill their basic education requirements.
"The state doesn't want a college on every corner," said Jon Sharpe, Los Rios deputy chancellor.
The centers' science courses are limited because they lack labs with complex piping and ventilation. Bookstores aren't kept open all semester. The Davis center has limited space for a counselor and none for a financial aid counselor.
Palm, the Davis dean, laments that public transportation between Sacramento City College and his center isn't better -- sometimes the bus ride to the center from Sac City takes 90 minutes. Student Ishchuk said he wished the Natomas center had a library -- an amenity expected in a couple years through a joint project with the Sacramento Public Library and Inderkum High School.
At the downtown Sacramento center, several students complained about the lack of convenient parking. Tanya Davidson, who takes an accounting class at the center, pays for a parking pass for her other classes at Sacramento City College and pays again downtown. At times, she buys something at Westfield Downtown Plaza to validate parking in the mall lot or uses a class break to feed the one-hour meters.
Although the satellite centers have fewer course offerings and are missing some amenities, Sharpe said nothing is lacking in the quality of education they provide.