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Big Changes on Campus

A head of steam that would move California toward fundamental reforms in community college financing and performance is in danger of dissipating. Studies on improving colleges are finished, the Legislature is ready to debate how to implement them, but there is no sign from Gov. George Deukmejian about what he plans to do.

California’s community colleges serve more students than any other campus network. As a legislative committee report said, they are “the route to higher education for the majority of our people, they provide access to language and citizenship for tens of thousands of immigrants annually, they retrain workers in an economy changing more rapidly than any in history, they are the last hope for older citizens seeking skills and involvement in their communities.”

The governor has three times vetoed additional funds for community colleges, saying that he wanted to wait for the final report of the Commission for the Review of the Master Plan. That report was issued in March. A joint legislative committee has finished its own review of the master plan. Hearings will begin next week on a a draft of its ideas, which are neither final nor unanimous.

Money isn’t everything, but it is the key to many contemplated changes in the way community colleges operate. Until there is a sign from the governor on budget and reforms, talk of change will be just talk. The governor needs to think in the same bold terms in which he has addressed the University of California’s financial needs.

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What changes in the colleges are needed? The mission of the colleges must be clarified. Community colleges should provide solid academic courses for two years to give students a sound base for transferring to four-year institutions. The colleges should also provide vocational education that meets the needs of students and of industries in their communities. And the colleges still must provide English-language assistance for immigrants and remedial education for many students.

Community colleges and the programs that they offer must remain accessible to people of all races and economic levels. To make this concept work, the colleges need better student and faculty recruitment efforts, better student aid programs and better testing and counseling services. One of the budget items that the governor vetoed last year would have strengthened a program aimed at assessing students’ abilities when they first arrive on campus.

Strong education programs require strong faculties. The next 15 years will see immense faculty turnover, with fully 55% of current full-time faculty members retiring. The colleges must replace them and expand full-time staffs as well. Faculty members should have more responsibility in hiring decisions and in developing curriculums.

The formula under which community colleges receive state money should be changed. The state takes a head count and passes out the money accordingly, just as it does to public schools. But that formula doesn’t take account of the expense of small but valuable programs; it does encourage colleges to offer high-enrollment, low-budget programs that are not always compatible with good education. Community college budgets should be based on the costs of faculty, equipment, maintenance, student aid, counseling and other programs.

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High quality costs money. It needn’t all be spent at once, and, as the joint committee staff said, will also have returns in educating people to be more productive citizens and less likely welfare cases.

Just as many Californians depend on community colleges, so does California depend on the colleges to produce workers, leaders and generally educated citizens. These colleges face many challenges in the decade to come, and their ability to meet them depends in no small measure on the leadership displayed in Sacramento in the next few months.


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