Community Colleges In Danger

Look to your left. Now look to your right. Chances are, one of you came from a community college.

While that may not be statistically accurate, UCI does undoubtedly have a very large transfer population from local schools like Orange Coast College, Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College. Day to day, you don’t notice them. They are some of our best athletes and our strongest students. Only when a Mesa Court reference pops up in conversation do they seem like outsiders (and dorm life isn’t a party all the time, so no worries there.)

The Obama administration has announced a 12 billion dollar package over 10 years this past July to help community colleges. He also recently announced two grants to help graduate an additional five million college students by 2020. If that sounds like a small enterprise, keep in mind that only a little more than 15 million Americans over the age of 25 currently have community college degrees.

Obama isn’t alone in this crusade. The two grants that aren’t federally funded come from the CEO and philanthropist-laden Aspen Institute and the self-explanatory Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Together, they are contributing $36 million to this cause.

At UCI we think of transfer students as our friends and colleagues, only distinguishable from career-long UCI students. However, Obama’s recent grant puts more of a focus on five million associate degree holders than five million future college students. As Jill Biden said, “Community colleges are … an integral part of America’s recovery.”

Suddenly this doesn’t read quite as UCI-friendly as before. The Obama administration along with his philanthropic friends now seem interested in making sure community colleges are associate degree mills to send people out in the work force rather than prep schools for four-year universities.

This isn’t fear mongering, either — The Gap, Accenture and United Technologies Corporation all plan on sponsoring classes. For instance, The Gap will teach people about “interviewing, resume writing, and job shadowing, with a focus on entering retail careers.” Now the analogy could be complete: Harvard-Westlake is to Harvard as IVC is to Gap.

A focus on graduating people at the associate level without pushing them to go any further could have a negative impact on the system as a whole.

This push for improved graduation rates comes from grants, which like any incentive system has mixed results. The No Child Left Behind Act’s standards-based funding encouraged schools to teach to a type of test to get funding, but at the expense of a potentially more well-rounded education and free-form classroom environment.

Grants are intended to steer a group of people in a certain direction on their own volition. By incentivizing community colleges to become American Apparel factories and not emphasizing their college preparatory aspects, we could just be creating another class of individual just below the “good job,” threshold and just above the high school graduate threshold.

The focus of community college education almost seems like a secondary concern when we recall that community colleges are becoming equally impacted as other state schools. Because of the lack of state funding, community colleges can’t afford to hire as many professors or have as many classes. An impasse at this point in the education process can’t remain.

Part of what makes community colleges so great is that they provide a safety net that allows anyone to get a higher education. Not everyone grows up in a well-funded, two-parent household with a very regimented vision of what one’s higher education will look like. Bills, relationships, grades, family … life catches up with people, and the community college system understands. They don’t stigmatize older students or poorer students, all the while giving them the tools and means to take their education to a higher level.

Where would we be without patron saint of Orange County Walt Disney, baseball great Nolan Ryan, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and countless other state governors and CEOs who have not only excelled in their own lives but validated the community college experience for everyone?

We laude the Obama administration for recognizing the important role community colleges play in our educational system, but we also ask him to do even more. The 12 billion dollars sounds like a lot, but divided over 10 years and then divided by the amount of community colleges, that number becomes a lot smaller. California, at least, needs a smoothly running community college system now before we lose a decade of great students to poor state budgeting of years past.

We also challenge him to remember that community colleges are still at this point the only way for someone to get a second chance at going to a four-year university. With this in mind, don’t turn community colleges into glorified trade schools under the guise of helping with the recovery. A bird in the hand isn’t always worth two in the bush. We would rather have two scientist birds later than one Gap employee bird now.

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