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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

The result of this little setup is exactly what you’d expect. In places where the local leadership is good—even visionary—the colleges are quite good, too. In places where the local leadership is bad or mediocre, the colleges are truly terrible. “Some campuses have a culture of destruction and some have a culture of collaboration,” observes Utpal Goswami, who became president of the College of the Redwoods just before the school was slapped with the regional accrediting agency’s most severe sanction.

Thanks to these localized differences, there’s a huge range in quality even among similar campuses that serve basically identical student populations. Santa Barbara City College, for example, was a co-winner this year of the Aspen Prize. Meanwhile, the College of Marin, situated a few hours up Highway 101 in a comparably tony district with a similar number of Pell Grant recipients (Santa Barbara’s student population is 6 percent low income; Marin’s is 8 percent), is, using the same metrics used by the Aspen Prize, doing much more poorly. Marin grants only about eight certificates or degrees per 100 students over a three-year period—a success rate that’s barely half of Santa Barbara’s.

In theory, the high failure rates at the College of Marin would lead to demands for reform at the district level. In practice, that seldom happens. (How many Marin County residents, many of them wealthy second-homeowners, pay the slightest attention to the goings-on at the local community college?) Instead, calls for improvement run smack into institutional inertia. “It’s like folklore,” says Goswami. “Someone will say, ‘This is the way we do it,’ and so even if it doesn’t work that well, you keep doing it that way. It’s hard to break those habits.’”

This inertia helps explain why, between 2003 and 2012, 55 percent (sixty-two of 112) of California’s community colleges were sanctioned by the regional accrediting agency for various shades of mismanagement or fiscal irresponsibility, and forty of those sixty-two were sanctioned more than once—sometimes four, five, six, or seven times in a decade—while the other 45 percent were not sanctioned at all. Although these sanctions are not always reflective of student achievement, they speak to the general culture of management at the local level. There are those districts that have a culture of abiding by the accreditation committee’s demands, and those that don’t, just as there are those that have a culture of serving student needs, and those that don’t.

The only way many of these abysmally performing community colleges might be motivated to improve is if they are pressured to by the state. And, fortunately, there is a growing recognition in Sacramento about the need to act. This year, for example, the CCCCO released a new statewide strategic plan for the whole system as well as twenty-two recommendations for improvements that, if followed, could do a great deal of good. But that “if” is pretty damning. The districts, which receive money from the state regardless of how they perform, are not obligated to fulfill—and in many cases, the district- and campus-level leadership is simply not capable of fulfilling—the CCCCO’s requests or recommended best practices. One community college administrator compared CCCCO recommendations to United Nations proclamations. “They’re nice, and all,” he said. “Everyone rallies around and signs it and says they’ll abide by it, but when they don’t, no one can do anything about it.”

The same is true of state laws. In recent years, the state has passed a few good ones, requiring, for example, that all community college districts provide students with the basic resources and services they need to graduate, and that districts give priority enrollment and class picks to those students on the path to earning a credential or degree, or budgeting to a four-year university. Of course, the districts are technically required to abide by all those laws, but in reality, whether the boards are able to implement them—and with what degree of aplomb—depends to a large degree on the competency and power of the local leadership. That’s a scary thought, considering that some districts have seen their governance processes grind to a halt over questions of much, much less significance, like where the faculty parking lot should be.

What’s ultimately required, then, is a new governance structure that gives more authority to, and requires more accountability from, the state. For workable models, Californians need look no further than their own CSU and UC systems. In the case of the CSU, its chancellor and state-level board of trustees, whose members are appointed by the governor, have broad authority over the system’s curricular development, facility, and property use, as well as fiscal and human resources management. The state board also appoints both chancellor and vice chancellors of the system, as well as campus presidents, who therefore ultimately answer to the state board. Similarly, the UC Board of Regents has “full powers of organization and governance” over the whole system, and the chancellor of each campus, while powerful on a local level, is also appointed by and accountable to the regents.

Thanks at least partially to their more centralized governance, the campuses within the CSU and UC systems don’t vary nearly as dramatically in quality as the state’s community colleges. Rather, even after several years of debilitating budget cuts, California’s four-years still congregate at the upper levels of the Washington Monthly’s college rankings: seven of the eight UC campuses that we rank are in the top 100 of our national university rankings, five are in the top twenty-five, and all but one have higher graduation rates than would be predicted statistically given their student demographics. Fifteen of the CSU’s twenty-three campuses rank in the top quarter of master’s universities, and all but five are graduating students at higher rates than expected.

There’s no reason that the kind of top-down accountability that has served the state’s renowned four-year institutions couldn’t serve its two-year schools just as well. It would not only make the system more manageable but would also turn its leader, the CCCCO chancellor, into a figure of real power in Sacramento, making it easier for him or her to fight for a bigger share of state funds. (It’s no accident that the un-ignorable Janet Napolitano was recently chosen to head the UC Regents Board.)

The problems we’re talking about here aren’t minor. They’re systemic issues, deeply ingrained in the cultures of California’s community college system, and changing them won’t be easy. It will have to happen in the state legislature, buttressed by brave leaders who are not afraid of upsetting the local or statewide academic senates, the faculty unions, and even the local boards of trustees, most of whom will not be in favor of giving up their power without a fight. Change will also require that the people in power—the elite, mostly upper class—who have the least personal stake in these institutions prioritize the working class.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

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