Will Some Community Members Be Booted From Community Colleges?

BY Spencer Michels  April 10, 2012 at 4:49 PM EDT

Students protest outside a Board of Trustees meeting at Santa Monica College on April 3; Michael Yanow/Getty Images

Students protest outside a Board of Trustees meeting at Santa Monica College on April 3. Police drew batons and reacted using pepper spray on a crowd as students gathered outside the meeting protesting the Board’s decision to raise fees under the contract education program; photo by Michael Yanow/Getty Images

A hundred or so students made a ruckus recently at Santa Monica College, and — unlike many student protests — they achieved their goals. In the face of a noisy demonstration and disapproval from the state, the college administration backed down on tuition increases it had proposed, that would have boosted the cost per unit from $46 to $200 for some popular courses needed for graduation. Santa Monica, a community college, was alone in trying to implement what was called a two-tier system, which would have charged a premium for courses much in demand. That plan would have favored wealthier students, and hurt those who couldn’t afford the premium — in a system where cutbacks in funding have forced many colleges to drastically reduce course offerings. Students have been complaining more and more that they can’t get the classes they need. Santa Monica thought it had a way to address that, but the opposition was too great.

Community colleges are in the midst of a major re-make, especially in California, and the turmoil at Santa Monica was a symptom of the turmoil. The system is enormous; nationwide 13 million students are enrolled, and in California alone, 2.6 million students attend, making the state system, with 122 campuses, the largest higher educational institution in the nation. The schools serve a variety of students: those who need a boost to get up to college level; those who want to learn a vocation; those who want to just learn without regard to a degree; and those who need to beef up their English skills. Community colleges have been called the backbone of the nation’s education system, where almost anyone — regardless of income or educational level –can attend, the place where the nation can win or lose its competitive struggle with other countries, especially in technology.

But it is a very troubled system. Despite increased demand, enrollment in California is down by 300,000 students. People have been turned away because the funding for community colleges has been cut by the state, and there aren’t enough teachers or classrooms to accommodate those who want to attend. It’s a familiar story in this bad economy; support for the University of California and the state university system has been reduced as well.

In the face of these problems, California educators formed a Student Success Task Force, and recently announced sweeping recommendations. The basic thrust: to get students to announce goals early in their community college careers, and to take courses mostly to achieve those goals. The task force and now the administration of the college system want to move students along as fast as practicable, so they will get their associate’s degrees or certificates, and can get a job or transfer to a four-year college, and not take up space for others who want to attend classes. They don’t want students hanging around for five or six years or more at the community college level. Administrators want the colleges to post goals and achievements as a way to encourage compliance and movement. They promise to improve remedial classes to speed students on their way.

What all this means is that students who move too slowly, who can’t make up their minds, whose personal concerns like parenthood or lack of money prevent them from getting through, will be left behind, perhaps denied a place, in favor of new, eager first-year students. That has bothered some educators, who say that community colleges were designed to help those who can’t move with the speed the task force wants.

In addition, the new direction is sure to affect lifelong learners, the people who attend classes in music, art, literature and foreign languages, who have long depended on community colleges for continuing their educations and avocations. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken music courses at my local community college for decades, with no interest whatsoever in getting a degree or moving on. It’s fun, and instructional, and part of what community colleges do.)

In the course of preparing a story for the PBS NewsHour on the subject, I ran into a semi-retired judge who takes drawing classes at his local college. He says he’d gladly give up his seat to someone who needed it for getting through the system, but sees no need to do so. Others — many of them seniors — use the college gym or swimming pool or exercise classes. Are those days over?

Individual community colleges are wrestling with what to do. They claim they just don’t have to money to continue on with long-term students and seniors who don’t really need subsidized classes. They can go elsewhere. Administrators argue that it’s more important to deal with people who need a job, who need to get on with their professional lives, who really need college-level classes, than it is to provide recreation — even if it is educational — to people who have already finished their college careers.

The colleges are dealing with an era of limits, with a poor economy that seems to leave them little choice. They believe they must concentrate on the people with a chance of succeeding. Should the economy improve, and state revenues increase, perhaps they’ll be able to save the “community” aspect of community colleges.

Watch Spencer’s report on this subject for the NewsHour broadcast: