Why Are Community Colleges Being Treated Worst When They’re Needed Most?

By the time the police arrived with the pepper spray, sending throngs of college students choking to the ground, it was clear that Santa Monica College’s plan to raise tuition had gone badly awry.

Days earlier, the trustees of the 31,000-student community college had announced a novel strategy for dealing with the state of California’s latest round of punishing budget cuts. It would open up new sections of perpetually over-subscribed courses like English and Math—but only to students willing to pay four times the standard price. The college’s mostly-minority, low- and middle-income students saw this as an affront to the institution’s bedrock tradition of affordable higher education. They protested, the cops arrived, the pepper spray was deployed, cell-phone videos of screams and chaos were instantly broadcast, the media descended, and in short order the leadership caved and cancelled the plan.

It was, I’m guessing, a bad week for Santa Monica’s president and his board of trustees. But the affair did serve valuable purposes. First, it drew attention to the unconscionable dismantling of California’s once-great system of higher education. More important, it demonstrated exactly what happens when public resources are pulled away. The biggest problem facing many college students is not, as popularly portrayed in the media, the need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend the college of their choice. It’s the problem of not being able to pay for any college at all, because the only college they can attend refuses to have them.

CALIFORNIA’S SYSTEM of organizing higher education is world-famous. Devised by University of California president Clark Kerr in 1960, the California Master Plan split the state’s higher education institutions into three tiers. At the top, University of California campuses would admit the state’s most academically-promising high school students and employ the nation’s most gifted scholars and researchers. In the middle, the California State University system would enroll the next rung of students and train them in fields like accounting and teaching. At the bottom, the California Community College System would provide two years of low-cost education and the chance to transfer to U.C. or CSU.

This allowed the state to simultaneously support elite research universities and provide open access to the masses—the two overriding goals of American higher education for the last half-century. In many ways, it was a fantastic success. The U.C. system currently contains seven of the 50 best research universities in the world. And between them, CSU and the community colleges enroll more than three million students. In the decades after the Master Plan was adopted, many other states adopted versions of the California three-tier system. To this day, it is the only way most people know how to think about structuring higher education policy at the state level.

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