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

Back in 1960, as part of California’s heady Master Plan for Higher Education, the community colleges were charged with the task of acting as a great equalizing force in the state. The idea was that, after high school, anyone could enroll in one of these ubiquitous, open-access institutions and either earn an associate’s degree or a vocational credential, or transfer to a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) (even more elite) campus. For decades, California’s three-tier system was the envy of the world, in no small part because of the pluralistic ethos embodied by the community college system—an equal-opportunity gateway to all higher education.

Fifty years later, the Master Plan has been hobbled by underfunding, but the community college tier—gummed up by poor management and a lack of state coordination—has been slammed worst of all. The recession alone brought an $809 million hit to the community college system—a blow that, between 2007 and 2010, added up to a cut of almost 16 percent in total funding, or $1,400 per full-time student. In the past few years, California community colleges have turned away or wait-listed roughly half a million people, and those who have enrolled have faced skeletal student services and unavailable classes. Almost across the board, student success rates have tanked. From 2002 to 2010, the total graduation rate at California’s community colleges slipped by 9.5 percent.

Last fall, voters passed Proposition 30, temporarily increasing income and sales taxes in the state to shore up funding for education and provide a much-needed reprieve for the community college system. But it’s hardly a long-term fix. Reformers tend to pine for the days before 1978, the year that California voters approved Proposition 13, uncoupling property taxes from funding for education and transferring funding prerogatives to the state. Since then, the community colleges have had to fight for increasingly limited funds in Sacramento, battling it out against the K-12, CSU, and UC systems. Year after year, the community colleges have fallen victim to what one administrator described to me as the “Jan Brady problem”: the least “pretty” of California’s three sisters of higher education, it’s perennially “overshadowed and under-loved.”

The second thing you need to know about the California community college system is that there’s basically no one at the helm. Unlike the CSU and UC systems, which are organized in top-down, centrally controlled structures—the campuses act as satellites of one singular university—the community college system is more akin to a confederacy of semiautonomous fiefdoms.

That goes back to the 1960s, too. The Master Plan swept together what had been an unconnected smattering of junior colleges, each controlled by a popularly elected local district board of trustees, and put them under the supervision of the California Department of Education, but each of the districts remained autonomous. In 1967 the state created the California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) to provide more oversight for the districts, but its authority, then as now, was more titular than real. The CCCCO has the ability, for example, to establish “minimum standards” and best practices advising colleges’ operations, but they have little control over what the local boards actually do, or who is on them.

But while most decisions are made at the district board level, the district boards of trustees don’t have a free hand either. According to so-called shared governance laws, which apply to the whole community college system, the district board of trustees shares its governing power with campus-level interest groups—including faculty, students, administration, and staff. The most powerful campus interest group is the academic senate, which is elected by the faculty at each college. At most colleges, the academic senate is run by members of the faculty union, and the two bodies’ policy agendas are often identical.

This system of weak state oversight and diffuse, shared local governance works fine in some districts. In others, it’s a big ol’ mess, with monthly district board meetings devolving as often as not into hair-pulling, mudslinging turf wars that feel a little like Robert’s Rules of Order meets Lord of the Flies.

Take City College of San Francisco, for example. At a board meeting in April 2012, the president, John Rizzo, anticipating the usual chaos, began with a sheepish plea: Can we all please “carry over the love”? he asked. Can we just “work collaboratively on this”? It was not to be.

A couple of hours into the meeting, Rizzo raised a motion to change the way City College’s English and math departments did their placement tests. The motion was, at heart, totally uncontroversial. The tweak in policy had been proposed by faculty, backed by the academic senate, and applauded by both the board and assembled student groups for making it quicker and easier for students to move through remedial classes and on to courses that would advance them to a credential or degree. The only question up for discussion that Thursday was when the policy would be implemented. The board and the assembled students wanted the policy to go into effect by the following fall semester. The faculty wanted it to go into effect at some point in the future. The fall semester was too soon, they said, as the faculty would not be working over the summer.

On the strength of that disagreement, the entire board meeting cleaved into two howling camps. At one point, members of the audience began, quite literally, screaming at each other—“Shame on you!” “No, shame on you!”—while Rizzo, banging his gavel, blinked wearily into the crowd.

After a while, the real root of the argument became clear. Each of the two camps—the board versus the academic senate—was convinced that it should have decision-making power over when that placement policy would be implemented. At one point, members of the academic senate took turns at the podium reading aloud from the portion of the California Code of Regulations that describes how the shared governance policy works: the district board is obligated to “rely primarily” on and reach “mutual agreement” with the academic senate, they read, in all matters affecting academics.

To the streets: Students, faculty, and board members at City College of San Francisco protested the July announcement that the college will lose its accreditation next year.

“It’s absurd that the board would think they don’t have to take faculty decisions into account when making decisions that affect faculty and academics at the college,” Karen Saginor, the former president of City College’s academic senate, told me this past July. “It’s just common sense.”

One particularly outspoken board member, Steve Ngo, was having none of it. He sighed with frustration and offered to refer the question to legal counsel—whose decision was it anyway, legally speaking?—but then challenged the faculty directly. What if the board, as the only publicly elected body, simply insisted that the policy tweak be implemented in the fall semester? he asked. The head of the English department, still standing at the podium, looked as if she’d been punched. “And what will happen to us if we don’t get it done?” she said in response, giving the board a little head waggle. “What if there are things beyond our control that happen—do we get spanked?”

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.


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