California. The land of opportunity.
It was a place for Americans to come to achieve their dreams of an affordable — and once upon a time, free — education. Those skills acquired would lead to a job or career that would allow college grads to feed their families.
But the state’s financial turmoil over the past five years has fundamentally changed California’s community colleges.
The system, which once provided free education to state residents, has intentionally rationed its resources and accessibility during a time when education is arguably more valuable than ever.
Since the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education was published, the mission of, and accessibility to, community colleges has changed.
Funding, course sections and enrollment statistics at the 112 two-year colleges in the state incrementally decrease year-by-year, semester-by-semester.
Faculty and staff take cuts as their departments are under scrutiny. And they wonder if their jobs will be safe for the next term.
Students fill the Financial Aid Office worrying if their checks will arrive on time, but are sometimes left thinking this only to themselves as student services are cut to minimal hours.
Recently laid off and unemployed community members return to Contra Costa College in hopes of registering for a class so they can re-enter the workforce. But they are soon disheartened when they find out the class they want or need is only available at a time they cannot schedule or at a price they cannot afford without a job.
And the cycle continues.
Efforts by state legislators have done little more than exacerbate the problem with short-term, shortsighted solutions.
Fees at the community colleges jump sporadically — it will cost more than twice as much to take a class next fall than it did in spring 2007 — while the four-year institutions experience many of the same problems.
The University of California and California State University systems have received reduced funding from Sacramento and have been forced to raise fees in an attempt to maintain a high standard of education. And, for the first time ever this year, CSU students paid more for their education than the state.
That was unthinkable 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago.
But the money is drying up for education in the state as property values plummet.
The Golden State, once home to the best public higher education system in the country, if not the world, has become a second-rate joke to many.
Classroom sizes grow while full-time faculty ratios shrink. Institutions narrow their focus on one or two goals in their mission statements while the Achievement Gap grows, leaving poor Californians on the outskirts of campus, outside, looking and hoping to get in.
Community colleges once represented the wholeness of their service areas.
CCC once offered welding technologies to meet the needs of local laborers. This year a decision was made to put dental assisting on hiatus. Dental assisting is a field that has been growing in the Bay Area for years and the college, since its establishment in 1950, has accommodated that need.
But as the state reduces funding to its more than 2.5 million community college students each year, it systematically forces colleges to choose who they will serve and when.
Until there is a fundamental reversal of the policies enacted over the last half-decade, California’s community colleges, and the perception of the state, will be as a land of dwindling opportunity.