Beyond the headline: Opening up the dialogue about California Community Colleges

The editors at the Washington Monthly caused a stir this month when, in their annual college guide, they published an article outlining the unique challenges facing California’s community college system.  The histrionic headline betrays a disturbing observation:  California community colleges suffer from a management dysfunction unique to an arcane regulatory decision made over 20 years ago.  The regulations, which elevate the powers of the academic senate such that they can impede the decisions made by elected boards, create a system in which “everyone is responsible for decision making, [yet] no one is accountable for it.”

WAMO Cover

California’s Community college system is massive in its enrollment (more than two million by some counts), its infrastructure (112 colleges plus numerous satellite campuses and centers), and its diverse course offerings, offered at the lowest tuition in the nation (less than $1,000 a year for a full-time student).  And while most people are aware of the deep revenue cuts sustained by the community colleges in recent years, few understand that a broken bureaucracy is contributing to 55% of community colleges being sanctioned by the state accrediting agency. The Washington Monthly story reveals that the effort to provide space for faculty input has instead resulted in allowing academic senates to veto decisions made by locally elected community college trustees. With community colleges paralyzed and locked in arguments over who is in charge, it is students who suffer.

The Washington Monthly digs a little deeper into California’s community colleges and asks – is fixing the dysfunction enough? Their answer, with which we agree, is no.  The decentralized governance structure in the community colleges has resulted in extreme variation in how the system’s 72 districts operate, which is why we called for the Chancellor’s office to have greater authority over the system in our 2012 report on increased accountability. Greater consistency across the system will reduce the “huge range in quality even among similar campuses that serve basically identical student populations.” Equally important, greater accountability will empower the state’s Chancellor’s office to lead the colleges to help produce its share of the 5.5 million degrees California needs by 2025 to remain economically viable, since we currently are not on track to reach that number.

The Washington Monthly’s article, despite its unfortunate title, raises important questions about the future of California’s community colleges.  It calls on us all to speak openly, honestly and transparently about whether the system is working and how to provide students what they need to succeed.  It calls on us to look at all the solutions available to fix the system’s problems. We hope this article opens an important dialogue on how we can continue to support community college students who look to our schools to achieve the American Dream.

Issues: Local Community College Governance