California’s community colleges need to retain flexibility

Can California’s community colleges — which have traditionally functioned as institutions of lifelong learning — still live up to their name?

Or is it time to ditch the word “community” and rechristen them something that better reflects this reality: That California cannot afford — at least at this time — to provide low-cost college courses to everyone who walks through the door of Cuesta, Allan Hancock or any of the other 110 community colleges in the state.

That’s not just us talking; a student success plan recently adopted by the college system’s Board of Governors includes the sobering acknowledgment that community colleges are no longer living up to their goal of serving “all Californians who have the capacity and motivation to benefit from higher education.”

As evidence, it notes that statewide, 133,000 first-time students were unable to sign up for even a single class in 2009-10 due to their low placement in the registration queue.

The report blames the gridlock, at least in part, on policies that allow some students to “wander around the curriculum, avoid services that could help them find a productive pathway, and accumulate an unlimited number of units.”

In a nutshell, the plan recommends a system that would encourage students to move through the system more quickly by giving registration priority to students who file — and stick with — an educational plan. Those students who “wander” too much would be pushed to the back of the line, and low-income students receiving fee waivers would lose those waivers after earning 100 credits. (Between 60 and 70 credits are typically needed for a two-year degree or to transfer to a four-year school.)

In principle, that seems only fair; we agree that longtime students should not be racking up excess units while newer students are shut out of classes.

We do have some concerns, though, that students could be pushed too soon into filing educational plans. Community colleges have, after all, been a place where 18- and 19-year-olds could sample various fields. Are we going to deny future generations that opportunity?

And we have some specific concerns about how the new system would work:

Would there be enough counselors available to help students develop their educational plans?

Would there be enough flexibility to allow students to take courses outside of their main field of study?

The system appears to be geared toward full-time students; would part-time students be penalized in any way?

And what about high school students who want to take a summer class to get a head start on earning college credits? Or older adults who want to enroll in courses for personal enrichment? Would the system still be able to accommodate them?

We hope that’s the case. We would argue that exercise classes that help seniors maintain flexibility; cooking or nutrition class that help improve health; even art or music classes that give older, isolated adults opportunities to socialize are vital to quality of life.

Those courses are going to be increasingly important as baby boomers leave the workforce, especially because many cash-strapped cities and K-12 school districts have been phasing out recreation and adult education courses.

At the very least, community colleges should commit to offering such classes on a fee basis — charging enough tuition to cover costs — and then revisit the issue as the economy improves.

To repeat, we agree that the state community college system needs to be revamped in order to accommodate as many students as possible. That’s only fair.

But before the state Legislature rushes to embrace a new model, we urge lawmakers to consider whether the individual recommendations are reactions to the bad economy, or make educational sense from a long-term perspective.

We may not be able to meet the goal of serving “all Californians who have the capacity and motivation to benefit from higher education” at this time, but that doesn’t mean we have to permanently abandon it.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.

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