Editorial: California Community Colleges – and Inequity?

Clovis Community College

Our former Chancellor, Dr. Brice Harris, used to open some of his addresses with the line, “California—the Land of Unintended Consequences.” He would follow that with a litany of the latest measures that were designed to empower our colleges or our students but that did the opposite, placing students or our mission in jeopardy.

We are living through a curious period in the California community colleges when a series of measures that are designed to help our students succeed may also threatening our most vulnerable students, the ones who must work to make ends meet, the ones who must care for families, the ones who are underprepared for college, and the ones who struggle with disabilities. All of these measures are based on solid data that tell us that these measures will help most of our students, and that data doesn’t lie: accelerating students through basic skills, using better placement mechanisms, and encouraging full-time schedules all work, and I support them.

But each of these measures focus our success on the “normal” student. Not all students fit that statistical norm: the outliers, those little dots on the graph that don’t seem to fit, represent our students, too. They have faces and names, stories and struggles. We know them, and we know how hard they work. When we note that X% of students will succeed with a certain intervention, we are also noting that Y% are likely to fail. The unintended consequences of the “average” or “normal” student being the measure of all things has led to placing a significant number of our students in jeopardy. It has put our mission in jeopardy.

As a part of the California Promise (AB19) students who take fifteen units each semester will be rewarded with a one thousand dollar assist because we know that those students are the most likely to complete their paths. But students who can take fifteen units often aren’t those students who must hustle through a long day of work before coming to class, who care for families, who struggle with a learning disability or mental distress. Instead, the recipients of this help are often the students who are most likely already being helped by their parents or who have independent means. What was meant as a help up and an incentive is actually based on a strange logic: we will reward you if you have the means to go to college full-time. That leaves many deserving students outside.

The Governor has proposed a new funding model to reward those colleges that are most effective in the completion agenda: Colleges would be rewarded for the number of degrees, transfers, and certificates earned over a three-year period. This incentivizes us to get our act together, to help students follow a path to success, and to streamline our offerings. Since we want success for our students, this makes perfect sense – except for the unintended consequences: a three-year window for completion is impossible for many of our most vulnerable students who are struggling to make ends meet, who may well be homeless or insecure in their food supply, who have children or parents to care for, who struggle with mental or physical handicaps – especially, students who attend college part-time, which is the clear majority of the students in our system. Those students who struggle the most and who have traditionally been the targets of our greatest help now become a liability to our colleges because they cannot complete in three years. Aren’t these the very students we are dedicated to serve? Should we turn them away in favor of those students who have independent means or whose parents have the wealth to support them through the velocity required? I can’t imagine any college turning away from our mission, but I also can’t imagine what happens when colleges are punished because their students reach success in four or five years instead of three. How does this serve our most vulnerable students? How does this serve our community or the state?

I am a firm believer in the acceleration of basic skills, and I can speak from experience: not only did I teach basic skills English almost exclusively for the first six years of my career, but I helped write the acceleration model for our college and helped establish multiple measure placement that uses high school grade point averages.  Clearly, our students can be accelerated to good ends, and the data is clear that most students do much better with accelerated classes and accurate placement.

But “most students” does not include those who cannot complete basic skills in English or in math in a single semester as required. Certainly, co-requisite courses that support students in classes are useful tools for many students. However, the most vulnerable students among us, those who struggle with the complexities of the English language or with the difficulties of the math sequences, those who have complicated lives, those who are juggling a myriad of problems and challenges, are left behind: they must succeed at the level of transfer-level English and math classes practically overnight (after failing to do so through 12 years of K-12 education). In short, the most vulnerable students must swim in the deep end of the pool or drown.    

Lowering standards in our articulated transfer-level classes is unthinkable: social promotion placed these students in jeopardy during the K-12 experience, and compounding that does these students no favors—and it denigrates the value of a California community college education. We pride ourselves on rigor and quality, and with support, students can meet our standards – but some students require a bit more time and more focused support so they can build confidence and succeed.

What happens to those students who find themselves in over their heads? They go away. They convince themselves that they are not college material. We fail them. We fail our mission. We fail our professions.

The data is clear: Many of our students can succeed with these new measures; a significant minority cannot. We fail our mission if we do not honor the lives they are living by offering them time to develop complex skills, to get their feet under them as students, to become a part of the college community – and time to see themselves in the future we have promised them.

I do not believe that these measures were established maliciously, and I support most of the methods and goals, but the unintended consequences of these measures to increase success for the majority has caused the California community colleges to forget those who do not fit a statistical measure of “normal,” and the victims are the students we should be helping the most because economic and personal growth are why we are here.

We can accelerate and place students properly, we can reward full-time schedules, and we certainly can fund colleges for success – but we absolutely should not set up brand new barriers for our most vulnerable students or disincentives for colleges to serve them.

We have focused relentlessly on equity for the past few years to our credit, yet we have recently created new roads toward inequity, punishing those we are pledged to serve. Is that our mission? Can we rally behind leaving our students behind by design? I don’t think so.

Jeff Burdick is a Professor of English at Clovis Community College, and a former member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.