Cuts Threaten the Mission of Community Colleges 

California's system builds community capital, but can it weather the storm?

With all the attention being paid to the draconian effects that budget cuts will have on California's citizens, it is worth stepping back and thinking about the community-building role played by the community college system — one of the state's true jewels. While much is written about the way community colleges help students advance economically, the system's role in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds also contributes mightedly to social cohesion.

Last year, nearly three million students attended the 110 community colleges in California, up by nearly 5 percent from the previous year. That amounts to almost one out of every thirteen California residents. That is a lot of folks. The system reflects California's diversity; more than one half of students are women and more than half are members of a minority group. Nearly one-third are older than forty. At Laney College, the East Bay's largest campus, more than thirty different languages are spoken in the homes of the students. And the students are busy; eight in ten work at the same time they attend school.

There are as many different types of people at community colleges as there are reasons for going there. Recently, the conservative commentator David Brooks marveled at the student stew in these institutions. He imagined children of immigrants and high-school dropouts looking for a second chance mixing alongside former meth addicts trying to get job training or fifty-year-olds taking classes for enjoyment. Brooks is a supporter of President Obama's "American Graduation Initiative," which aims to pump federal dollars, taken from the subsidies received by student-loan providers, into community college systems.

The individual stories of those who benefit from their time in this system are inspiring. Take the story of two who moved from community colleges to Cal's prestigious Social Welfare program. Mike Ergo entered Diablo Valley College in 2005 after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. While in the service he saw the horrors of combat and experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and at college he received counseling that he believes changed his life. In an interview, Ergo said he "realized the power in counseling and respected how social workers valued the idea of a client's self-determination." He hoped to find a position where he could give back to his fellow vets in a similar way. But he lacked a high-school diploma and thought it was unlikely he could have gotten into a four-year university or college. So he entered community college to brush up on his skills and explore various academic paths. Community college enabled him to get into Cal, and next spring he hopes to graduate with a degree in social welfare.

Or take Traci Bernal, who, at 26, was enmeshed in a divorce and facing life as a single mom. As a part-time day-care worker and full-time mom, she took a leap and enrolled at Contra Costa College in 2005. Since she is the first in her family to attend college, her time in school was self-actualizing. Bernal's confidence grew, and she developed an interest in learning. After seeing previously unimagined vistas of possibilities, she applied to and was accepted at Cal.

But experiences like theirs are in jeopardy because public education in California is in crisis across the board. Since the beginning of the school year, after the Sacramento budget meltdown, the news has been filled with stories about the state of the community college system. In the East Bay, classes and whole sessions are being cut this academic year. Meanwhile, down in San Diego, where state budget cuts have resulted in more than 1,000 canceled class sections, increased fees, and much-reduced student services, protesters rallied at City College this month, calling for an end to the cuts that have put 20,000 students on waiting lists for classes.

Dire predictions abound. Ron Galatolo, a community college district chancellor, told the San Jose Mercury-News that due to shrinking state funding, some of the state's colleges will actually go broke in the foreseeable future.

While those in the system figure out how to weather this year's cuts, they anticipate fearsome funding cuts in next year's budget and beyond. This is the opposite of the way things should be with a rational government. Money for community colleges should be counter cyclically shepherded. The money should be structured in much the same way that unemployment insurance is supposed to work, so that it is there when it is needed most — like it is today.

Of course, ideological battles abound. Egged on by well-funded think tanks, the right-left argument of our time concerns "outcomes" versus "access." Brooks and others claim that financial aid is basically unimportant and that the real issue is making sure that folks come out of the community college system perfectly tailored to serve as soldiers in the corporate hierarchy. Given all the roles that community colleges play, the argument over whether they should be subsidizing corporate job training or serving as stepping stones to higher education is a complicated one.

But access without support, which some on the right appear to champion, is a losing proposition. Few institutions in our society build skills for individual people while allowing citizens from such an astonishing array of backgrounds to learn together. That is a beautiful thing.

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