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California’s Community College System Gets Students Into School But Not Always Out

For most of history, higher education has been reserved for
a tiny elite.

For a glimpse of a future where college is open to all,
visit California – the place that now comes closest to that ideal.

California’s community college system is the country’s
largest, with 109 campuses, 4,600 buildings and a staggering 2.5 million
students. It’s also cheap. While it’s no longer free, anyone can take a class,
and at about $500 per term full-time, the price is a fraction of any other

There is no such thing as a typical student. There are high
achievers and low ones, taking courses from accounting to welding. There are
young and old, degree-seekers and hobbyists – all commingled on some of the
most diverse campuses in the country, if not the world.

Many students, for one reason or another, simply missed the
onramp to college the first time around – people like 31-year-old Bobbie Burns,
juggling work and childcare and gradually collecting credits at San Diego City
College in hopes of transferring to a media program at a nearby university.

“I love City,” Burns said, noting that once she transfers
she’ll face a less-flexible schedule and higher fees. “I wish I could keep
going here.”

These days, states around the country are wrestling with how
to provide mass scale higher education – a challenge California anticipated
decades ago.

But if California is a model in one way, it’s struggling in

The state ranks near the top in terms of getting students in
the door of higher education. But its batting average moving them out – either
with a degree or by transferring to a four-year school – ranks near the bottom.

“In 1960 or 1970 or 1980, access was enough,” said Nancy
Shulock, of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Cal
State Sacramento. “But it’s not enough now.”

Of course, not everyone at community college is looking for
a degree, so measuring success is tough. But several recent studies, including
one by Shulock, have tried to identify students who are seeking such benchmarks
as a certificate, associate’s degree, or a transfer to a four-year school.
Those studies have found that only about a quarter of such students in
California succeed within six years. For Blacks and Hispanics, the rates are
even lower.

Boosting completion and transfer rates is high on the agenda
of California policymakers. But opinions vary considerably as to why they’re so
low to begin with – and what lessons others might draw from the state’s

Some believe the system’s basic financial model of charging
students as little as possible is actually part of the problem, and needs
reform. The debate comes down to this: Do you help students more by charging
them less, or by raising fees and using the money to give students more
support, helping them move quickly and successfully through the system?

California has always been at the forefront of making
college affordable.

In the 1920s, when it ranked 11th among the states in
population, it had the most students in college, according to The California
Idea and American Higher Education, a history of higher education in the state
by John Aubrey Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California,

In 1907, California authorized the country’s first
state-sponsored junior college system as a network of feeders for the state’s
public universities.

Today, the state has three tiers of higher education: the
University of California for the top students; the Cal State universities for
the next level; and the open-access third tier that came to be called community

Community colleges students can work their way into the
four-year schools, and it’s a cheaper path to a bachelor’s degree. Last year,
more than half of CSU graduates – and nearly
one-third of UC grads – started at a community college.

But community colleges now are asked to do much more than
broaden the path to a bachelor’s degree, from job retraining to remedial high
school work. Systemwide, as many as 80 percent of incoming students aren’t
prepared for college-level courses.

“If we could control the input, the students who are coming
to us, we could control their preparedness level and ability to succeed, we
could easily increase our success rate,” said Eloy Oakley, president of Long
Beach Community College. “We could do what universities do, which is
cherry-pick the best students.”

But Oakley – whose student body is one-third Hispanic,
one-quarter White, and about 12-percent each Black and Asian – says that would
defeat the purpose of community colleges.

Lack of preparation isn’t the only reason students come up
short. They also have to work – a lot – outside class.

“One semester, my mom helped me out and I took 23 units and
got a 3.8,” said Monica Robertson, speaking after a Spanish class one recent
morning on San Diego City College’s campus, a collection of buildings on the
edge of downtown that resembles a 1960s-era high school. But every other term
she has been working 40 hours a week in a car wash.

Between that and a change of majors, she’s been taking
classes for seven years. Though she has enough overall credits to transfer, she
hasn’t yet finished the specific ones she needs.

Attending full-time one semester “just teased me,” she
said. “I thought, ‘If you didn’t have to work, Monica, you could do so much so

California has a high cost of living, and half of
independent students in the system earn $29,000 per year or less. Four in five
students work, on average for 32 hours per week, according to education policy
expert William Zumeta of the University of Washington. That’s about twice as
much as students can typically handle before their academic work suffers, other
research has found.

California community college students, Zumeta says, “work
ridiculous amounts for students who are at such risk of not completing.”

If students can attend full-time, they are four times as
likely to complete as part-timers. But only 29 percent of California students
can attend full-time. That’s 12 percentage points below the national community
college figure.

“I reached the breaking point,” said Brian Mechem, a
classmate of Robertson’s, who works seven days a week as a restaurant cook
while pursuing a degree so he can transfer to a four-year school. “I stepped
back for a couple semesters, but I’ve made the decision that even if it takes
me 10 years, I’ll stay in school.”

Many lack Mechem’s persistence. If these really were
two-year colleges, maybe more students could beg and borrow and attend full
time. But between remedial classes and waiting lists, five to seven years is
more the norm. Students who are transfer-ready in three years are considered

“They may run out of desire, because they’ve spent time
pedaling fast and going nowhere,” said Marilyn Harvey, a community college
graduate herself, who now advises San Diego City College students on
transferring. “Or they say, ‘You know what? I just need to go to work now.”’

To many, student work demands are an obvious argument for
keeping fees low. Enrollment rose when the state cut fees from $15 per credit
to $11 during the 1990s. And enrollment fell during the most recent budget
crunch when prices rose from $11 to $18. Prices eventually hit $26 before
falling back this spring to $20.

“Every time you ratchet up the total cost of education, I
don’t see how you can do anything but (harm) people on the lower socio-economic
scale,” said Marshall Drummond, the outgoing chancellor of the state community
college system.

But the system’s own research shows that it is budget cuts,
which reduce course offerings, rather than fee increases, that most affect

And Zumeta and Shulock argue California’s fees are, in fact,
too low. Low prices let people in, but give them little incentive to push hard,
and deprive the system of revenue to support a new generation of students with
intense educational needs.

Low revenue creates a constant money crunch for counselors,
small classes, tutors, child care – all the things that student fees support,
and which help students finish their degree.

“The issue is whether this is an inexpensive education or a
cheap education,” David Longanecker, executive director of the Western
Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said of California’s system at a
recent conference for education journalists. “Low price is the enemy of

The costs are so low that some students sign up for classes
because the gym privileges are cheaper than health clubs, Shulock says. Zumeta
says low fees have become a misguided “obsession.” Considering books,
transportation and other expenses, class fees are only about 5 percent of what
it costs students to attend community colleges here. The focus should be on
helping students with that other 95 percent of expenses, so they can work less.

Low prices have actually reduced the federal aid eligibility
for some students, such as Burns at San Diego City, who says she qualified for
a Pell Grant this year for the first time.

And Zumeta argues that, at least until recently, there
hasn’t been enough money for financial aid counselors to help students get the
money they are entitled to, which may explain why California community college
students appear to leave millions of aid dollars on the table. Despite their
relative poverty, California students get less in Pell Grants and end up with
more unmet overall financial need than their counterparts elsewhere.

While Zumeta and others support continuing and expanding
waivers for the poorest students, they note that nearly 200,000 other students
have incomes of $100,000 or more, or come from families who do.

“There are an awful lot of students in the California
community college system who frankly could afford to pay more,” Zumeta said.

But many who work closely with students say that argument
cuts against the founding philosophy of California’s unique system – and fails
to recognize that, in the end, raising the price makes attending school harder
for low-income students.

“I understand the economics, the micro and macro arguments
people are trying to make,” said Oakley, the Long Beach City College
president. “But those people don’t really know our students either.”

Ruben Page, a counselor who works closely with students at
Long Beach, would probably agree. He says there are plenty of things he could
do with more money, but worries about how the poorest students would fare.

“When I go to high schools, my students aren’t always
thinking about the money, but their parents are,” said Page, adding bus fare
can be the determining factor in where a student enrolls. “They look at

– Associated Press

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