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September 04, 2013 11:03 AM Bay Area Bust

By Ed Kilgore

When the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly was released last month, I drew attention to an important piece by Haley Sweetlands Edwards that was written in conjunction with WaMo’s third-ever rankings of community colleges. Edwards reported that some of America’s worst-performing community colleges were in a state that was the national pioneer in making a commitment to universal access to higher-education via an elaborate network of community colleges—California—and in a particular part of California—the San Francisco Bay Area—with an unusually strong economy based to an unusual degree on “knowledge workers.” The loss of accreditation and impending closure of San Francisco City College—which currently enrolls 85,000 students—is the bright flashing alarm of trouble for Bay Area community colleges, but the problems are systemic, as indicated in the schools’ terrible standing in the WaMo rankings of all 1,011 community colleges in the country:

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. CaƱada 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.

It’s easy to blame California’s chronic state budget crises and their steadily corrosive impact on higher education as the cause of this anomaly, and it has certainly contributed to it. But money alone doesn’t account for the gap between Bay Area schools and the relatively strong performance of community colleges in other parts of the Golden State.

Haley concludes that the single biggest problem is a decentralized governing structure for community colleges that frequently leads to gridlock between district boards and faculty representatives who share power over many decisions, and that makes accountability to the state or to students or citizens the exception rather than the rule. She proposes reforms that would make California’s community college system function more like the vastly more successful UC and Cal State systems, while helping fix the most dysfunctional campuses.

You should read the whole article, but the central paradox remains: America’s preeminent knowledge industry center is doing a terrible job of educating its future workers. Exactly how long can the Bay Area continue to boom, particularly in competition with cities like Seattle with good community colleges? It’s a good and important question.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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