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

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.

Unfortunately, that has masked serious problems with the underlying architecture. It has always been more of a treaty than a plan. In the 1950s, California developed a bad habit of building new universities in whatever district happened to be represented by the most powerful state legislators, instead of where the most students were or would be. And as soon as shovels hit dirt, university leaders began agitating for PhD programs, medical schools, and other accoutrements of elite learning. The Master Plan imposed some order, but the treaty has frayed over time. The CSU and U.C. systems are always fighting for money and prestige.

It was also, in California and elsewhere, a system deliberately designed to discriminate against lower-income students. Community colleges are a distinctly American institution that arose to fulfill a particular need. Migration and economic growth ballooned the population of Sun Belt states the middle of the 20th century at the same time that economic and social trends were driving more people to college. Community colleges were a way to meet that need on the cheap. Students would pay less, but so would the government. In round numbers, California currently spends twice as much per student educating U.C. students as it does on CSU students, and twice as much on CSU students compared to those in community colleges.

As a result, the original promise was never really fulfilled. Community colleges were charged with doing at least three different things—continuing education for adults, job training for local labor markets, and the first two years of a baccalaureate education—while enrolling students who often came from dysfunctional K-12 schools, all with pennies on the research university dollar. In California, community colleges are governed by locally-elected boards that tend to be heavily influenced by faculty labor unions. This combination has produced some startlingly bad results. While nearly half of all American undergraduates are enrolled in a community college (in California, it’s closer to two-thirds), the majority of them fail to get a degree or transfer to a four-year school.

Then came the anti-tax movement and legislation by ballot initiative—two more California innovations—and the subsequent deterioration of state governing institutions. The system was able to kind of, sort of, keep itself together for a while. But after the economic crisis of 2008, the public higher education engine began to seize. <Read more.>

Via Kevin Carey, The New Republic.


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