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August 27, 2013 12:48 PM Can the Worst Community Colleges Be Fixed?

By Daniel Luzer

Haley Sweetland Edwards has a fascinating piece in the latest issue of the magazine about America’s worst community colleges. One particularly terrible one appears to be the City College of San Francisco. Located in one of the most vibrant and innovative regions in America, the community college, it turns out, has been failing students for years.

Walk a few blocks northeast from Twitter’s headquarters, and you’ll find the City College of San Francisco’s downtown center—one of a dozen or so campuses scattered across the city. Earlier on the same afternoon of my visit, the regional accrediting commission announced its decision to strip the seventy-eight-year-old institution of its accreditation next year, citing broken governance and fiscal mismanagement. Protests erupted almost immediately and the college announced it would appeal the decision, but as it stands now, City College is scheduled to close its doors, or be co-opted by another institution, next July.

Accreditors do not remove accreditation lightly. Once a college gets to that point, it’s safe to say that the problem is unsolvable. The appeal probably won’t work.

If that happens, it will mark by many measures the most catastrophic implosion of a community college in our nation’s academic history. And more to the point, City College’s roughly 85,000 students, most of whom are minority or working class, will be out of luck. While they’ll be allowed to transfer with their credits, commute to another institution, or simply stick it out during the turmoil, the truth is that many won’t. They will be added instead to the roster of hundreds of thousands of students in the last decade who have enrolled in a community college in the greater San Francisco Bay Area with the hope of getting a credential or degree, of clawing their way to a better job and into the middle class, but have left school empty-handed.

Edwards outlines a long history of failure at the institution, which seems to stem from two fundamental problems: declining funding from the state and a complicated governance structure that gives no one the necessary power to improve anything.

One of the biggest problems here, however, is that the fact that the community college is pretty bad, and might get shut down, isn’t much help to the students and potential students in the college.

Community colleges are not like private colleges, or even for-profit schools; they exist to provide low cost education and training to the community. The accreditor’s decision to shut down the school, while entirely valid, does not result in a new, better community college. The students are basically out of luck.

And, indeed, if San Francisco were to attempt to create a new community college it would likely be made up of many of the same people who used to work at the City College of San Francisco.

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

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