Axing Access for Community College Students

Axing Access for Community College Students

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In the coming week, the Student Success Task Force will decide on a set of policies intended to streamline academic pathways for students enrolled in California’s community colleges, discouraging those who meander and giving incentives for those who achieve stated goals. What it actually means for our 2.6 million community college students should give the rest of the state pause.

Ongoing budget cuts have forced our institutions to do more with less. While efforts to provide more academic guidance seem sincere, I’m not convinced that these top-down reforms won’t devolve into rubber-stamping and denial of access for those who need it most.

As an academic counselor I have worked with students ages 17 to 60, from tortoises to hares on the college track. Our community colleges should not be streamlined into one-size-fits all.

The task force, launched in January of 2011 by the state Board of Governors to boost completion rates, wants to tie funding and college access to performance. Reminds me of Monopoly; if you’re living on Boardwalk, it’s easy to get ahead, but if you’re a single mom struggling to get a college degree, like several of my students, it will be harder to pass Go and collect $200.

The new policies, put forward last November, penalize students who fall behind or deviate from their education plans, by doling out enrollment priorities and fee waivers to those who can stick to their goals. Who among us has a perfect track record with our New Year Resolutions?

Last month I met with two older students at City College of San Francisco whose medical problems set them back in school. One woman had been attending almost continuously since 1989, taking a course at a time, all the while juggling work and family responsibilities until back surgery forced her to miss a critical semester. Another student lost her job after her accident, and was unable to attend for three semesters. Both these women face great hurdles since they reentered City College after the graduation requirements had increased.

The policies of the task force will add further obstacles, blocking their ability to receive Board of Governor (BOG) fee waivers and demoting their enrollment priorities.

Those who take years to achieve their goals shouldn’t just be labeled scornfully as students for life. I have met with hundreds of students who work full time in childcare centers, retail stores, and low-wage jobs just to make ends meet. Many of them manage to take courses at night through grit and determination. Some have their own kids to care for.

And, sometimes, bad luck happens. These folks need our support as much as the sprinters who finish in two years.

The task force wants to cut state funding from what it deems frivolous courses. Sure, community colleges train 70 percent of our state’s nurses, while more than a quarter of UC grads and greater than half of Cal State students start out at the JC. But community colleges have a broader mandate, and courses like computer training and PE have benefits that aren’t always apparent.

Also, if the State Chancellor’s office begins deciding the courses that receive funding based on demand, it is possible that emerging programs, such as hybrid vehicle or green building technologies, may not be given a chance to succeed. The top-down approach may not work for our 112 community colleges throughout the state as it might for the CSU and UC systems.

It’s encouraging that the task force has already dropped some of the more drastic recommendations, i.e. taking funding away from noncredit courses in ESL and citizenship, and requiring students to pay full cost for courses not listed in education plans.

I’m fine with doing more education planning with our students, and giving some teeth to these course plans. But the task force also favors technical tools like those used by Netflix to “nudge students toward better choices.”

Getting an education isn’t the same as lining up your favorite movies. Let’s give our students – who also work to care for our kids and fight our fires – real access to college and a second chance for those in need.