September/ October 2013 America’s Worst Community Colleges

The San Francisco Bay Area’s economy may be high tech, but its community colleges are the bottom of the barrel.

By Haley Sweetland Edwards

Mo’ money, mo’ problems: Supporters of City College of San Francisco gathered in front of city hall in March to protest recent cuts and reorganization at the community college.

Read about America’s best community colleges here and view our best community college rankings here.

On a recent July evening, I took a walk through San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, or SoMa, as it’s called, which has transformed in recent years into a gritty-yet-swanky world-renowned hub of the tech start-up industry.

Twitter, Zynga, Pinterest, AirBnb, and Uber, to name only a handful of companies, were launched in these cavernous, converted warehouses years ago, and, after the city considerably sweetened the deal, they’ve agreed to stick around. SoMa’s bustling economy is now Exhibit A in Mayor Ed Lee’s long-term plan to make San Francisco the epicenter of the digital economy—the place where, as he likes to say, people come “to grow the jobs and companies of the future.”

On its face, his plan seems to be working. Job growth in the San Francisco metro area and the South Bay has expanded at more than twice the national rate in recent years and even the historically poorer East Bay has outpaced the U.S. average. The median income in the region continues to be the highest in the state of California and average rental rates are keeping pace, shooting up nearly 30 percent in 2011 in places like SoMa and then again in 2012. The city’s famously liberal rent control and loitering policies have created, by accident, picture-perfect vignettes of these rapidly changing times. During my visit, I watched a homeless man help a twentysomething kid parallel-park a Tesla.

But the breathless boom of new industry is not the only story SoMa has to tell. 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.

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.

After all, while City College is unique in many ways—it’s huge and enjoys the generous support of a wealthy tax base, which recently approved a local parcel tax to keep the school solvent—many colleges in the Bay Area aren’t doing so hot either. Using federal data sets tracking the percentage of students who graduate or transfer within three years and the total degrees awarded per 100 students—the same metrics used by the well-respected Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence—the Washington Monthly ranked 1,011 community colleges in the country and found that nearly all the schools in the Bay Area are bottom-feeders.

San Francisco City College ranked 842. In the East Bay, Laney College slid in at 882. The College of Alameda was an abysmal 971 and nearby Berkeley City College was, astoundingly, even worse, at 982—just twenty-nine spots away from last place.

In the region just south of San Francisco—the cities that Facebookers and Googlers pass every day on their morning commutes from the city—the picture was equally grim. San Bruno’s Skyline College scored a relatively sparkling 772, but neighboring College of San Mateo, where a director of information technology was recently charged for selling the school’s computer equipment and embezzling the cash, ranked 845. Cañada College ranked a pitiful 979.

North of the city, the College of Marin, where the community college foundation board dissolved last fall and are now involved in a lawsuit over “spending improprieties,” ranked 839.

That picture was confirmed when we added to those rankings a second metric: how the schools performed on the most recently available Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), a respected measure of how well institutions follow research-based best practices for learning—the number of books and papers students are assigned, for instance, or the amount of interaction with faculty. Almost all the Bay Area schools were again clustered at the bottom of the list. San Francisco City College, with below-average CCSSE scores in all five categories, clocked in at forty-second worst nationwide. And the College of Alameda—just a quick ferry ride from those humming streets of SoMa—has some of the very worst combined CCSSE and graduation statistics in America.

So the question here is clear: How is it that a region of the world that prides itself on its booming growth and vibrant market—on “growing the jobs and companies of the future”—presides over a system of higher education that is so broken for so many?

The same question might be asked of the state itself. California’s community colleges granted only 10.6 certificates or degrees per 100 students enrolled over a three-year period. That’s almost 40 percent worse than the national average, which itself isn’t exactly something to write home about. Nationwide, 14.2 percent of community college students earn a certificate or degree, or transfer, within three years. Among black and Latino students, the overall failure rate, both in California and nationwide, is even higher.

That’s bad news for the Bay Area and California, bad news for the nation, and especially bad news for the working class. With nine out of the top ten skilled job openings in the next decade in California alone expected to require a post-secondary credential of some sort, the failure of the community colleges in a region otherwise characterized by booming growth will levy a major blow not only to the economy, but also to the very notion of upward mobility in this country.

There are two things you need to know about the California community college system. The first is that it’s huge. Of the 1,050 or so public community colleges nationwide, 112 are in California. All told, the state system enrolls about 2.4 million people—roughly a fourth of all community college students in the country—most of whom are low-income, first-generation college students, or minorities, and many are not prepared to take on college-level work. Serving those students is an intimidating mandate, but also one on which the whole system of higher education in California was founded.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.


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