On the shelf of an office in Coalinga sits a time capsule of sorts, transporting readers to the old days of community college. The book commemorates the 75th anniversary of the founding of West Hills College in Coalinga, featuring black and white photos from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Young men and women, most of them white, hold books as they walk across campus. They pose together at the college dance or smile during football practice.

“It’s like ‘Friday Night Lights’,” said West Hills Community College District Chancellor Kristin Clark, comparing the images to the popular TV show and movie about small-town America as she leafs through the book. 

The town of Coalinga, located at the western border of the Central Valley, is still small and rural, but today, the college is more than three-quarters Hispanic and roughly 40% of classes are online. Many classes are offered through prisons, at a satellite campus in Firebaugh, or at nearby high schools. 

That evolution is now at the center of a growing debate over a state law enacted in 1961. Known as the 50% law, it requires community colleges to spend at least half of their general fund each year on classroom instructors. That general fund represents most of Clark’s annual budget for the college. While faculty say the law ensures that colleges focus on teaching, college administrators say it’s outdated and that they need more flexibility in budgeting to meet the needs of students.

“Our mission has changed drastically,” Clark said. “Just sending them into a classroom isn’t enough these days.” 

Nearly one-quarter of the state’s community college students experienced homelessness in the past year, and many more struggled to afford food, according to a recent survey. The Central Valley had the highest rate of food and housing insecurity among students, the survey found. Yet many of the services that colleges offer, such as technology and library materials,  food pantries on campus and support programs for Hispanic and disabled students, do not count as instructional costs.

Walking into the library at West Hills College in Coalinga, Erick Morales and Raul Sevilla, both 18, are searching for Wi-Fi, not books. Even at the Starbucks in town, where Sevilla works part time, the internet is slow, he said. When the library closes, both students rely on Wi-Fi hotspots on loan from the library to complete their coursework. Those hotspots are not considered instructional costs either. 

‘Where is the money going?’

The intent of the 50% spending law was to keep class sizes small and to limit the growth of administrative positions, according to a paper by the Community College League of California. On average, community colleges across the state spent 51% of their general fund on instructors in the 2021-22 academic year, according to the most recent data from the Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Many schools were just tenths of a percentage point above the 50% threshold. 

While Clark and other college presidents see those numbers as evidence of the evolving role of community college, faculty leaders see evidence of administrative bloat. “Our primary function is instruction,” said Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. “Where is the money going? Are we using this money to support students or to support an administration that’s larger than is necessary?”

She said many of the expanded services that colleges provide today are funded from sources excluded from the 1961 law. That’s because the law only applies to money spent from a college’s general fund and not to money received through restricted state grants or through philanthropy. 

“Where is the money going? Are we using this money to support students or to support an administration that’s larger than is necessary?”

Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges

In recent years, state legislators have earmarked a growing number of restricted grants to address historically underserved populations, such as former foster youth, undocumented, Black, Native and LGBTQ+ students, as well as for student needs, such as homelessness and hunger. However, college presidents say the state and federal money doesn’t cover all of the costs for these programs.

In June, Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, a Chino Democrat, asked the state to audit community college finances to evaluate compliance with the 50% law. Representatives from all of the state’s 116 community college faculty unions expressed support for the audit. 

In his letter, Rodriguez referenced an audit from 2000 that found that multiple community college districts didn’t comply with the law. He pointed out that the salaries of community college presidents and superintendents now average $284,504 per year, with the highest annual salary at $386,003. He wrote that the number of administrators has grown by 45% in the past 10 years, even while enrollment at community colleges has declined in the same time period.

He also cited an audit from February that found the Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office lacked oversight of money the Legislature earmarked to hire full-time faculty. In some cases, college districts didn’t fully spend or misspent the money, the audit found. Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment. 

“Districts want flexibility, they want to get rid of reports, and they don’t want to be accountable,” said David Hawkins, legislative advocate for the independent faculty unions at 13 of the state’s community college districts. 

Legislators approved the audit request and it is currently ongoing. They haven’t set a publication date.

The 0.1% that makes all the difference

Clark’s district represents two independent colleges, both called West Hills. One campus is in Coalinga; the other is 40 miles east in Lemoore. Both towns rely in part on agriculture, even as drought and flooding have created billion-dollar losses in recent years. Last fall, Coalinga almost ran out of water, only to suffer flooding months later

Many students qualify for the colleges’ support services — and the numbers are growing.

“We’re serving the most students we’ve ever had since I came here five years ago,” said Maria Gonzalez, an associate dean who oversees five programs at the Lemoore campus. Her office, which doubles as a storage unit, holds a stack of more than 20 instant pots, still in their packaging, that her team will distribute as part of a program to help low-income students with children.

One of her programs that focuses on disabled students is serving more than 550 people this fall, roughly 12% of the student body, she said. To assist these students, the college has dedicated counselors and specialists, as well as an office space where students who need extra time can take their exams. 

Student Theresa Steele stands in the walkway on campus at the West Hills College in Lemoore on Oct. 9, 2023. Steele uses the free services provided by West Hills to help her get by in her classes. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Student Theresa Steele stands in the walkway on campus at the West Hills College in Lemoore on Oct. 9, 2023. Steele uses the free services provided by West Hills to help her get by in her classes. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

“Without DSPS (disabled student program and services), I don’t think I’d be able to finish what I finished,” said Theresa Steele, 58, who has limited mobility and learning disabilities. When she first enrolled in 2015 at the Lemoore campus, she said she didn’t know about the college’s support services and felt she “didn’t fit in.” She dropped out after two semesters. 

Now, she’s back at school and uses accommodations set up by the college, such as a special chair for classroom seating and software that helps her take better notes in class. She’s become a fixture on campus, serving as the commissioner of finance for the student government. Some students call her “grandma,” she said.

Last year, West Hills College in Lemoore spent about $1.4 million on the disabled services program, half of which is covered by a restricted state grant. The rest came from the general fund and does not count as instructional costs under state law. 

“We’re serving the most students we’ve ever had since I came here five years ago.”

Maria Gonzalez, associate dean at West Hills College in Lemoore

In total, the district spent 50.1% of its general fund on classroom instructors last year. Had the district spent 0.1% less, the equivalent of $23,000, it could have faced punitive measures that include the loss of state funding, Clark said. “We’re making decisions every day based on this law.”

The college has instituted a freeze on hiring new positions that aren’t defined as “instructional,” and Clark said she has rejected requests for more academic counselors, librarians, and custodians in the past two years. Only the Coalinga campus has a security guard at night. She said the Lemoore campus can’t afford one.  

Other state grants have created similar dilemmas for college leaders. In 2021, for instance, community colleges received $10 million dollars to spend over five years in order to establish LGBTQ+ centers or expand LGBTQ+ services. The money amounted to about $17,000 a year, on average, for each of the state’s 115 brick-and-mortar campuses (Calbright College, the state’s online community college, was exempt). College leaders told CalMatters it was not enough to hire staff.

Trying — and failing — to reach an agreement

Administrators and faculty say they are open to reforming the 50% law so that it more accurately reflects the cost of running a college today, but they can’t agree on how. 

In 2014, a task force composed of college administrators and faculty proposed a broader definition of instruction that included counselors, librarians, curriculum development and tutoring, but it also called on the state to raise the required percent above 50%.  The proposal made its way through the state’s bureaucracy, but by 2019, it had lost support among administrators before making it to the Legislature, said Willy Duncan, president of Sierra College and a member of the task force. 

During a hearing on Rodriguez’s audit, legislators and a representative from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office proposed expanding the audit. Instead of just looking at compliance with the 50% law, they asked if the state could also gather information on how much money colleges spend on “safety net” programs, such as food pantries or services for disabled students.

“We have expanded the expectations of what schools at all levels do,” said state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat from Encinitas.” We just need the dispassionate analysis of what is happening so that we can evaluate it.”

Students walking out of their classes through the hallways at West Hills College Coalinga on Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Students walking out of their classes through the hallways at West Hills College Coalinga on Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Brill-Wynkoop said one of the solutions she wants to see is to keep the 50% law but for lawmakers to provide more money in their grants for specific student services. “We’re the least-funded per student of any public education system in California,” she said. “We don’t have enough money.”

Last year, Contra Costa Community College District failed to meet the 50% spending requirement. The district received a one-year waiver instead of a financial penalty, district spokesperson Timothy Leong wrote to CalMatters in an email. 

Though they’ve made “tremendous progress,” he said the district will continue to struggle with the law as long as counseling, mental health and library services fall outside the definition of instruction. “We need to help our legislators and governor to understand and address this conflict,” he wrote.

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.