FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2010 OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“FOUR-YEAR DEGREES AT COMMUNITY COLLEGES? WHY NOT?”
At long last, there are signs Californians might become a little inventive in the face of financial crisis.
The best example so far of an idea for making lemonade when life has dispensed lemons comes in the higher education field, where state colleges and universities have absorbed large budget cuts, begun charging higher tuition and fees than ever – and will still turn away about 100,000 qualified students next fall.
That situation amounts to a wholesale abandonment of California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which guarantees a place at either the University of California or a California State University campus for every student who has done enough to qualify.
With some campuses reserving significant numbers of spaces for local residents and others turning away even those students, public universities for the first time are plainly not keeping their 50-year-old promise.
Enter the state’s community colleges. This 110-school system charges far lower tuition and fees than the four-year schools, offers basic classes that are good enough so that UC and CSU schools let transfer students enjoy full credit for them and features a host of faculty members at least as qualified as many at the more prestigious campuses.
But community colleges award only associate of arts or science degrees, which can be obtained in as little as two years. Among public campuses, only the universities now can give bachelor’s degrees and more.
But things ought to change, now that they’ve begun to refuse admission to many thousands of students who deserve it, based on their high school performance and test scores. That’s mostly because of lean times, which see increased class sizes and decreased course offerings at every level of education.
It’s a lemon of a situation if ever there was one.
Which has led some inventive, if obscure, lawmakers to take a hard look at community colleges and wonder if they can’t fill some of the gap created by the hard times.
For students who can’t afford the 32 percent increase in Cal State tuition and fees scheduled for next fall, the current $26 per unit community college tab looks pretty good. Especially when the two-year campuses are often far closer to home than their big brothers. And when the portion of community college students transferring to the larger schools is gradually falling, now standing at only about 40 percent.
The idea of letting California community colleges do more than they ever have was first voiced late last year by Democratic Assemblyman Marty Block, a former dean at San Diego State University and ex-president of the San Diego Community College District board.
“We have a lot of well-respected community colleges in San Diego,” Block told a hearing on the master plan. He noted that SDSU has closed fall admissions even to local applicants. “(The community colleges) think they could do a fine job offering those next two years to students, at least in certain disciplines. I think moving in that direction is a good plan.
And why not, when four-year schools often employ part-time “adjunct” faculty who sometimes possess fewer academic credentials than many community college teachers?
A similar idea arose last year in a failed bill by another Democratic assemblyman, Jerry Hill of San Mateo, who sought to allow a bachelor’s degree program in the San Mateo Community College District.
This sort of plan is already in effect in Florida, another state where fiscal crisis has crimped four-year campuses, leaving that state short on college-educated residents to fill future job openings. The non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California reports that this state faces a similar shortage, to be worsened if four-year college enrollment problems persist.
But pushing such a major change won’t be easy, even if it does seem like an obvious solution to a problem that’s starting off big and promises to get bigger.
Turf battles are inevitable, with faculty members at the more prestigious four-year schools not wanting to see their status spread around. There’s the question of whether community colleges could offer small seminars and advanced laboratory facilities without increasing their tuition and fees. And there’s space: The community colleges are already overflowing, with nearly 3 million students.
Solutions for these kinds of issues seem far easier to find than for California’s overall budget problems. If four-year schools can’t educate all the qualified prospects, it will become obvious that someone else must do it. The issue of higher expenses for higher-level students can be resolved with fee hikes that would still leave community college classes priced well below the big universities. And space issues are more easily resolved at the community college level than statewide, as local voters are usually willing to approve construction funds for schools in their own areas.
So this change is doable, and probably in pretty short order. And it’s something that needs to happen soon – or California risks depriving many thousands of its best and brightest young people of opportunities long promised to them.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net