Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
While states are quick to pile new missions and responsibilities onto community colleges, they are less quick to fund them: nationwide, the schools get less than half per student of what four-year public research universities get in state and local funds. This is in spite of the fact that community college students comprise one of the fastest-growing sectors in American higher education, swelling with low-income and first-generation college-goers looking for courses that are cheaper, more accessible, and more flexibly scheduled than those on offer at the typical four-year college.
The problems this situation poses are thrown into particularly sharp relief in California, the home of the nation’s largest community college system, which serves 2.8 million students on 110 campuses. California’s system was intended as a gateway to higher education when the state developed its “Master Plan” for higher education in 1960. While the state’s public four-year universities accepted the top-performing third of high school graduates, the community colleges would accept everyone else. The idea was that students could start college close to home and at a low price, then transfer their credits to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree. California’s plan was widely considered to be a model social policy at the time of its inception: the system provided opportunity to anyone who was interested, without sacrificing quality for those who were exceptional.
But California’s Master Plan was drafted with an eye to the needs of a state which, demographically speaking, no longer exists. It was designed basically for “white kids in the fifties,” says Dr. Robert Gabriner, a former president of the Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges. “And being a white kid from the fifties, I can tell you that was pretty good.” In 1960, only a fifth of college-age Californians went to college, and the state’s K–12 school system did a relatively good job of preparing that top band of students for it. But in the subsequent half century, immigration and swelling birthrates brought California a younger and more diverse population, which the state’s K–12 public schools never adapted to. Over the same period of time, the labor market shifted toward industries that needed more highly educated workers, and the number of students who aspired to attend college rose accordingly. Meanwhile, a series of ballot initiatives and court decisions changed how California schools were funded, gutting and destabilizing school funding just as educational needs were growing.
Because California’s four-year universities were reserved for the top third of high school graduates, the weight of this unfortunate confluence of trends fell mostly on the state’s community colleges. The schools were flooded with new students who were emerging underprepared, and in ever larger numbers, from the K–12 system. Community college enrollment grew elevenfold between 1960 and 2005, but funding levels didn’t keep pace with the colleges’ educational challenges or their growing importance to the state’s system of higher education. Per student, community colleges get less than a third of what’s allotted for the state’s prestigious University of California four-year schools. Community colleges are required to accept virtually anyone interested in higher education, no matter how unprepared, and today an astonishing 84 percent of incoming California community college students don’t qualify to take college-level math classes that can count toward a four-year degree (in English, it’s over 70 percent).
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