By Dina Martin
Gavilan College professor Heah Halper and her students advocate for access to community colleges.
Led by the Community College Association (CCA), faculty are mobilizing to fight legislative proposals that could shut the doors to higher education for hundreds of thousands of students.
Under new recommendations by the state-appointed Student Success Task Force, students with plans to transfer or obtain associate degrees or certificates would be given priority for registration and fee waivers to the detriment of students who are unable to attend college full time — largely the poor, ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and English learners.
“If we eliminate access to the most vulnerable students, our numbers may look better, but at what cost?” CCA President Ron Norton Reel says. “As faculty, we want our students to succeed. We also believe that if faculty members are allowed to determine what success is, the outcomes will be better than what is being proposed.”
At issue is the task force’s narrowed definition of “success” and whether it should be limited to those students who are able to get through college in a timely way.
Many faculty see the recommendations as an attack on the mission of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which opened the community college experience to all adults. As a result of the Master Plan, the California community college system provides 2.9 million students with basic skills education, workforce training, personal enrichment, and courses to prepare them to transfer to four-year universities.
While CTA’s legislative advocates work to change the bills, local members of the CTA-affiliated Community College Association are educating their colleagues and students on their campuses.
Faculty from Gavilan College in Gilroy, for example, have been collecting signatures on petitions, posting on Facebook, and writing letters and opinion pieces in area newspapers. They provide resources on their website and have launched a YouTube video called “Real Student Success: Keep the ‘Community’ in Community College.”
In the video, history professor and Gavilan College Faculty Association President Leah Halper observes that in their 100-year-old history, “community colleges have developed into wonderful places that offer something for everybody,” from music classes for her 75-year-old father to AP classes for her 16-year-old niece. “We need community colleges to keep serving everybody. … Let’s not start picking and choosing which people and which goals get addressed.”
Gavilan students also contribute their stories to the video. Some speak of the need to work while attending school, of child care needs that prevent them from attending full time, and of the time they need to study.
“I don’t think it’s fair to give any student an advantage in getting classes or being able to register, because all students are at a college to learn or to get their education,” says student Karla Perez Garcia. Garcia would like to earn her degree in two years but has to work full time and cannot fit the classes she needs into her schedule.
One size does not fit all
Halper compares the direction of the Student Task Force recommendations to No Child Left Behind.
“These bills are a college version of NCLB. Instead of test scores being the only judge of student success, in the college system it would be the number of certificates or degrees,” she says. “We all know numbers do not tell the entire story.”
Like many other faculty, Ron Norton Reel has plenty of examples of successful community college students who did not follow a prescribed path to higher education. He vividly recalls a student who enrolled in Reel’s speech courses at Mt. San Antonio College because he thought he might want to become an actor.
Anthony Zuicker never received his associate or bachelor’s degree, but he did go on to create the hit TV series “CSI” and its spin-offs “CSI: NY” and “CSI: Miami.” Yet Zuicker’s story would not fit the model of student success, Reel says.
Faculty members have also expressed concerns about returning military veterans who are expected to enroll in community colleges in large numbers. Although special programs are available to provide services, many vets will be unprepared to make the transition from active duty to become full-time students right away.
Instructors in English learner programs are worried about their students. Gavilan faculty member Kathy Baaumer explains, “The key to their future is education because [without it] they will be stuck working in minimum-wage jobs. For that education, they need to learn English first.”
CCA is also upset that the task force recommendations attempt to remove local control from the local boards of trustees of the 72 community college districts.
“It would empower the [California Community Colleges] Board of Governors, and by extension the Chancellor’s office, with unfettered power to dictate the structure of community college education,” Reel says. “A one-size-fits-all approach does not serve local communities, nor is it accountable to local communities.”
CCA has provided a number of materials to help spread the word about this detrimental legislation. Visit www.CCA4me.org to download resolutions, background info and an extensive cost analysis of the proposed bills.
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