COVER STORY: Crunch Time In California
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
C O V E R S T O R Y
Crunch Time In California
Community College Reform Crusade Rattles Golden State
By Paul Bradley
There’s an earthquake shaking California’s vaunted community college system, but it has nothing to do with ancient fault lines or massive tectonic plates.
Long central to the economy and culture of California, community colleges are in the spotlight as calls for reforming the system grow louder and more urgent, even as funding for the institutions continues to recede.
The debate over California community colleges and state higher education in general has been festooned with boisterous protests by thousands of college and university students, who swarmed the state Capitol in Sacramento on March 5 to express their anger over steep fee increases and scaled-back course offerings.
The colorful protests have faded away, making way for a more substantive and mundane process. The first elements of a community college reform agenda are moving through the California State Assembly.
Born of the crippling budget cuts stemming from the onset of the national economic downturn, the proposed changes would alter state community colleges in fundamental ways: requiring students to participate in mandatory orientation, assessment and education planning; mandate that colleges implement a system of common assessment and publish an “accountability scorecard;” and require that students meet academic progress benchmarks to be eligible for the coveted Board of Governors fee waiver program, which allows 1 million needy students a year to attend college virtually for free.
“We believe that something can happen for the good despite the blows we have taken fiscally,” said system Chancellor Jack Scott. “We are reeling, but we decided to do some reform.”
“But this in no way changes our strong conviction that we are being under funded. The 15 percent cut we’ve taken in the past two years has been extremely harsh. It’s going to hurt us in the long run.”
Scott, 78, is stepping down as chancellor, a post he accepted in 2009 after a dozen years in the Assembly where he was an influential voice on education policy and funding. A former community college president, Scott will stay on until Aug. 31 to help shepherd the reforms through the legislative maze.
The proposed reform measures have touched off a fierce debate in the Golden State. They are the product of the state’s Student Success Task Force, a 20-member panel convened in 2010 to reform a community college system that once was lauded as cutting edge, but has been slow to fully embrace the completion agenda advancing in other states and promoted by the bully pulpit of President Obama.
“These are not cutting-edge ideas,” said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “But even five years ago, you could not have these conversations in California. People who raised these issues were vilified. I think it shows how far California has fallen.”
If the task force recommendations become law, California will, for the first time, explicitly limit access to community colleges. Enrollment priority would be given to first-time, full-time students, and to those who map out an educational plan from admission to graduation. Financial aid would be tied to academic progress. Enrichment and “lifelong learning courses” would no longer be state-subsidized.
“We no longer can be all things to all people,” Scott said. “We don’t have the money.”
The pushback against the task force recommendations has been predictably fierce. Critics say they ignore the fundamental principle upon which community colleges were founded: to open the doors to affordable, quality higher education for all. The goal of these institutions is not simply to steer students along a career path, but to prepare them for lifelong learning and civic engagement, they say.
The true problem, critics say, is that California community colleges have been chronically under funded for decades – a situation only exacerbated since the onset of the financial crisis. Since 2008, the state has reduced spending on community colleges by $809 million. An unexpected $149 million budget shortfall – dubbed the “February surprise” — will mean more class cuts, layoffs, borrowing and probable elimination of summer programs affecting thousands of students. In 2009-10 alone, 133,000 first-time students couldn’t get into a single course because colleges were forced to slash course offerings.
Counseling services have been particularly hard-hit by budget reductions, a fact the task force acknowledged in its report: “While funding has always been scarce, the state’s current fiscal crisis and resulting cuts in funding to the California Community Colleges have greatly exacerbated these significant challenges. Deep cuts to categorical programs in the 2009-10 state budget reduced by roughly half the funding available to support critical student services such as counseling, advising, assessment and tutoring.”
Advocates of change, like Scott, say that the system already rations access to colleges and it is time to do it in a more rational way.
“The de facto rationing system is disproportionately harming first-time students, and our data show that today’s first-time students are more racially and ethnically diverse than continuing students,” Scott said. “Historically under-represented students would benefit from the enrollment priorities recommended by the Student Success Task Force.”
The stakes are high. The state’s community college system includes 112 colleges. It enrolls 2.6 million students, fully 70 percent of all college students in the country’s most populous state. But statistics show that only 53.6 percent of degree-seeking students ever earn a certificate or degree or successfully transfer. For African-American and Latino students, the rate is much lower (42 percent and 43 percent respectively). Among students who seek to transfer to a four-year institution, only 41 percent are successful. For African Americans, only 34 percent succeed. For Latinos, the figure is 31 percent.
Even absent poor graduation rates, reforms of the sprawling system would be needed, said Stewart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan, independent state agency charged with ways to improve state government. The commission issued a second community college report which mirrors many of the recommendations of the task force, but also plows reform ground the task force left fallow.
“We really need the students to succeed,” Drown said. “There is an economic interest here. Our economy needs better-educated workers. You can’t be all things to all people. You need to prioritize, and when you do that, other things get a lower priority”
“We want open access for people who want to get in, get an education and move on.”
The commission calls on community colleges to focus on three areas: basic skills, career technical education and transfer preparation. It also believes all adult basic education programs now operated by
the K-12 system should be moved to community colleges.
Its recommendations call for more power to be vested in the chancellor’s office, allowing it to create accountability measures and intervene in district affairs.
The commission also favors performance-based funding, saying colleges whose students attain academic milestones such as earning degrees and certificates should be financially rewarded. The current enrollment-based funding formula should be revised, the commission believes.
“We’re calling for piloting performance based funding,” Drown said. “Other states have tried it. It’s something our state should try.”
That recommendation has provoked perhaps the strongest outcry from critics. Karen Chow, academic senate president at De Anza College, said in a letter to the task force – which considered performance-based funding but ultimately made no recommendation – that the approach is wrong-headed.
“We strongly oppose, as a general principle, basing any community college funding, including Basic Skills Initiative funding, on performance based criteria as a means to ‘incentivize’ student success,” she wrote. “Such a model of funding has proven to be highly detrimental to achieving student success for underrepresented students and under funded schools in the K-12 No Child Left Behind policy.”
“Years of data from our successful student success cohort programs demonstrate that when students have access to adequate assessment, orientation, counseling and advising, and educational planning, there is a strong correlation between matriculation and student success.”
Community colleges in California have been the subject of numerous studies over the past 30 years, Callan said. But this time seems different. Discussions on accountability are taking on more prominence that ever before.
“We represent such a huge share of community college enrollment,” he said.
“California can’t succeed unless community colleges succeed. And the nation can’t succeed unless California succeeds.”
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