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Keeping the Dream Alive

One American college student in 10 attends a California community college. This, as a student would say, underscores the state’s “totally awesome” responsibility to ensure that its community college education is the best possible. The reports are in on how the state should exercise that responsibility. Now it’s up to the Legislature to act, and to the public to make sure that it acts wisely.

The Commission for the Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education reported last week on the strengths and weaknesses of California’s 106 community colleges. In February a more narrowly focused report on the community colleges’ financial accountability was issued by the Little Hoover Commission, which deals specifically with government organization. Together they show where the structure is sound and where it badly needs repair.

California’s community colleges have helped millions of people achieve the Jeffersonian dream “of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity.” To keep the dream alive in a time of rapid demographic and social changes, the commission said, the state must retain its policy of open access for all students.

But it said in effect that open access would mean little without more state money for better counseling and placement services, and instruction in basic skills needed to stay in college. The report also urged that clear academic standards be set for each course, and that probation and dismissal standards also be clarified. The Legislature should go even further than the commission in requiring colleges to try harder to retain students.

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If implemented, the reports would give Sacramento even more control over education policy. The shift of power started for local school districts and community colleges after passage of Proposition 13, because the state now pays most education bills. Now--in the interests of uniform standards for admitting students, conducting affirmative action in hiring faculty members, developing programs, gathering data and drafting budgets--the commission recommends more authority for the statewide community college Board of Governors.

Both the master plan commission and the Little Hoover Commission suggested strengthening the state board’s ability to step in should local districts not follow recommendations from auditors on improving their financial practices. The Little Hoover Commission said that in 1985 one-fourth of the state’s college districts had “questionable” financial conditions caused by poor management decisions, a pattern of deficit spending and declining enrollments that reduced the level of state support. In a system that spends $1.6 billion of taxpayers’ money each year, that commission concluded, there is no excuse for confusion over where financial accountability lies.

A major package of community college reform bills will be introduced in Sacramento after hearings on the master plan commission report.

The two new reports are a foundation for restoring community colleges to the position of importance that they once held. They also offer a plan around which business leaders, educators and politicians can rally as they did for lower schools a few years ago. Community colleges, so crucial to California’s future, deserve no less.

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