Fixing" the California Community College System

Futures Committee Member

Time and time again, suggestions come from outside our "system" as to how to "fix" us. Interestingly, although our problems are complex, proposals to "fix" us tend to be quite simplistic and are often focused on increasing administrative flexibility while sacrificing quality. And when economic challenges emerge, the fixes seem to be more short-sighted than usual. In the current climate, we have proposals from the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) to decrease the funding for some courses, we have caps imposed on our growth at a time when most colleges are growing quite considerably, and there are always calls to remove the rules we have in place to prevent a further decline in our full-time faculty numbers. Without full-time faculty, how do we accomplish our academic and professional responsibilities? If our loosely joined system had a voice, what would it say? If our system had an independent voice, what would it advocate for?

Dear Friends of the California Community College System -
I'm compelled to write you at this time as we are in a predicament. As our economy gets worse, we are expected to do more-and more-with less. As the UC and CSU take fewer students, the demands on our resources increase. As people are laid off, they come to us for re-training. We try not to complain, but we can only take so much.

Over the years there have been many who have taken an interest in how our system works and how it doesn't. Policy influencers look at research on our system and see where we are not living up to our potential. They then make proposals for ways to fix us, often without consideration for our many missions, our diversity, and our commitment to accessibility. If we abandoned our communities and focused exclusively on transfer, increased our fees, and implemented admissions requirements, no doubt our transfer rates would soar. While preparing students for transfer is an important part of who we are, that is not all that we are. We strive to do the impossible-meeting community needs for workforce preparation, English language learning, transfer, life skills, and terminal degrees, just to name a few. We serve all adults who can benefit-not merely those with transfer aspirations. But we certainly would like to increase our transfer rates-and would welcome changes that help us to do so-without sacrificing our ability to serve those who need us the most.

We know we are not perfect and we understand your desire to fix us. We don't operate as a system-and we should not be expected to. Our 110 college system is genius-allowing 110 different approaches to meeting local community needs. Some colleges are positioned to be the destination for transfer-oriented students-and they shift their resources to that area, hiring more counseling staff and ensuring that transfer-bound students receive the guidance they need. Others strive to serve immigrant populations by establishing satellite locations that reach out into these populations. Even individual colleges within a district are able to dedicate their resources as is appropriate for their demographic. Perhaps we are better described as a network that spreads throughout the state with each location tailored to the needs of our local communities. While we must find ways to work together effectively and ways to ensure that all students are well-served, to expect us to function as a fully integrated system is not only impossible, but unwise.

It must be noted that sometimes external forces have done wonderful things for us. Faculty will often reference AB 1725 (Assembly Bill 1725) and praise it-but they probably don't take the time to read it. And they should-as well as all of you who want to make the California community colleges better. AB1725 established a proud vision of the colleges noting that "learning is what we care about most". It also noted what community colleges need in order to ensure that such learning could happen, as demonstrated in the statement "The success of the assessment, counseling, and placement system in the community colleges depends upon the ability of community college districts to provide a full range of courses of remedial instruction and related support services." This captures what is at the core of the failures some see in our system-we don't have the resources to do it.

The Legislature's understanding of the community colleges was further codified in AB1725, as these choice quotes demonstrate:

  • "Professional development for faculty, support staff, student services staff, and administrators is vital."
  • "All state and local policies, rules, and regulations regarding community college faculty and administrator qualifications, evaluation, hiring, or retention should strengthen faculty, administration, and board cooperation in matters related to those topics. They should also strengthen the role of the faculty as an authoritative, professional collegiate body."
  • "The state should provide the community colleges with enough resources and a sufficiently stable funding environment to enable them to predict their staffing needs and to establish highly effective hiring processes."
  • "It is the joint responsibility of the student and the community college to realize the student's goals and aspirations, which often change during the educational experience and which include such diverse purposes as literacy training, English acquisition and development both for persons whose primary language is English and persons having other primary languages, vocational training, job reskilling, skills enhancement, and education oriented toward transfer to a four-year college or university."

While we seemed to have the support we needed back then, efforts to fix us have generally consisted of new forms of "accountability", regulations to prevent us from misbehaving, and directions to simply do more with less. And every now and then we hear rumors about doing away with some of the really good rules. If you want to help us, don't do anything that would decrease our number of full-time faculty. If you really want to help, enforce the rules that exist to make sure that our colleges have the people they need to really make things work-ensure that 75% of all instruction is being taught by full-time faculty. While our many part-timers are essential to our functioning, they could do so much more if they were full-time faculty and able to move their local colleges forward with the passion and drive they currently use navigating the freeway. Community and belonging are essential to academic success-how can you foster success when so many of your teachers are not an integral part of that community?

And, while you are at it, provide funds for professional development so that all faculty can be their best and do their best for students.

And if you really want the colleges to produce more degrees and certificates, fund all the support services that are necessary to guide students on their educational journey. Modify existing rules to increase the number of full-time faculty who are both teaching and counseling. Instruction can't achieve its full potential without the support services to aid students in identifying and planning to reach their goals. AB1725 acknowledged this. How can the education we provide be valued, but the need to support it with resources be ignored?

Please give us what we really need to succeed and we will strive to meet your expectations. Who knows, if properly supported, perhaps we might even exceed them.

Joe the California Community College Instructor