Merced College Professor of Philosophy Keith Law has always taken seriously the philosopher’s duty to ask difficult questions and question conventional wisdom. Below, he offers a critique of recent proposals for change in California’s Community College system.
According to the California Community College Chancellor’s website, ours is the largest system of higher education in the nation, with 2.1 million students attending 114 colleges. Since opening the first community college in Fresno in 1910, the system has educated countless students and its impact to our economy and cultural life is immeasurable. What happens to the quality of education provided by these colleges matters a great deal. This is why I am sounding the alarm regarding recent legislation and the changes sought in Governor Brown’s latest budget.
I am a community college success story. After serving in the military I attended community colleges in order to kick-start my education, which culminated in a Masters Degree from San Francisco State University. I am currently on the thirtieth year of my career as a community college instructor. It is from this perspective that I share my concern.
One course I teach is a critical thinking class for students aspiring to transfer to the University of California. The course was mandated by UC so students would improve research and writing skills. To get into the class students must have passed college level English as a prerequisite.
In order to gauge entering students’ basic skills I require them to read a brief editorial then write a summary. Even though this is below college level English, fewer than 50% of students show proficiency. This is a problem because a genuine college education includes reading great thinkers in subjects like economics, history, or psychology, and expressing ideas about them in writing.
Four drastic changes that are being made in Sacramento are going to make this problem much worse. These include legislation that curtails remedial educational opportunities, and another that forces students to choose majors and not waver in order to limit the number of units students take. Brown’s recent budget proposes to tie a percentage of a district’s funding to the number of students attaining certificates, degrees and transfers. Finally, Brown wants to create statewide all online certificates and degrees.
All of these initiatives include politically correct terms like equity, access, innovation, and student success. They all have as a goal increasing the number of certificates and degrees. However, once in place there will be little difference between a California community college degree and one from any number of the diploma mills that we seem wrongly to be competing with in a race to the bottom.
The for-profits like the University of Phoenix come to mind, but the leader of this model is Arizona State University. ASU infamously grants online degrees to anyone who is foolish enough to think they will be respected by any employer who knows better. ASU currently markets the fact that it is rated in US News and World Report as number one among colleges for innovation relative to its online offerings. However, they don’t advertise their 47% over-all grade, which suggests they are failing regarding academic substance.
AB-705, the “Seymour-Campbell Student Success Act,” is based on the notion that students were held back by having to take placement tests that showed they need remedial English and math courses prior to college transferable courses. This was particularly the case for English as a second language students. Students who take remedial courses attend college longer and have lower success rates. Now, instead of relying on tests we go by high school transcripts.
The problem is that students didn’t test well because they graduated from our high schools nearly illiterate. So, now college teachers are expected to take these same illiterate students into our classes even though they can’t read a textbook or write a proper paragraph. This means they either fail in droves, or teachers will dumb classes down even more, so they can pass.
Somehow, the fact that we offered years of remedial math and English courses to help students catch up and gain a college education became bad, and cutting those resources and herding students into courses for which they are ill-prepared is now good.
Another Sacramento initiative referred to as, “Guided Pathways,” is advertised as a student-centered guide to helpstudents attain their goals more efficiently. In reality, it forces them to choose majors rather than encourage them to explore options during their first years of college. Ultimately, this has more to do with herding students through the system as fast and inexpensively as possible.
The dumbing down will be complete once college funding is tied to the number of students who complete degrees and certificates. Then, not only will we be herding unprepared students through our courses, but money will be tied to how many we pass. If graduating illiterate high school students isn’t bad enough, now we will be graduating illiterate college students as well. How long will it take before employers and four year colleges catch on that the diploma referenced on a candidate’s application is a piece of paper signifying nothing?
Finally, Brown wants our colleges to compete with other online diploma mills by launching a fully online community college. This proposal is intended to increase access to those who have a hard time attending classes; however, our community colleges already provide online courses making this unnecessary. More importantly, online courses don’t work for students who do not possess college level language skills, which describes most of our students. Further, employers do not respect online degrees so they are not competitive. One reason is the lack of controls for cheating or to even know who in the world is actually taking a class.
If Republicans were in control, they likely would admit these cuts to social services are to save tax dollars. In the hands of Democrats, whose campaigns faculty organizations bankroll, we get so much doublespeak that George Orwell is rolling in his grave. Ironically, higher education was once the antidote to this kind of political deception.