Fiscal Strains Push Community Colleges To Look Hard At Their Mission
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City College of San Francisco is one of the biggest community colleges in the country and it may be about to close. Its accreditation is in jeopardy. The problems aren't in the classroom, they're financial and administrative. And a lot of people in higher education are watching closely.
As Jen Chien of member station KALW reports, what's happening at the school illustrates a larger fight between two visions of what a community college should be.
JEN CHIEN, BYLINE: The trouble at City College of San Francisco could be symbolized in the difference between two students, Jacob Ortega and Ivy Gao. Ortega is 18 and studying political science.
JACOB ORTEGA: I was originally planning to go to San Francisco State but my father had passed away and without his pension we didn't really have that great of a financial situation. So, I thought it would be better to get my general education here.
CHIEN: Ortega is what some call a traditional community college student. He's fresh out of high school, in college for the first time and, after two years here, he plans to transfer to complete his bachelor's degree. Ivy Gao is considered a non-traditional student. She's a recent immigrant from China, in her 30's, and takes free English as a second language classes.
IVY GAO: (Through Translator) Right now I take three classes a day, from about 10 A.M. to 3 P.M.
CHIEN: Gao is unemployed at the moment but says these classes will eventually help her get a job.
GAO: (Through Translator) When you first get here to the U.S., if you don't speak English, even businesses here in Chinatown won't hire you.
CHIEN: ESL is actually the largest department at City College, with 700 courses. Many are free. In fact, there are a lot of non-credit classes at City College, and the majority of its 85,000 students are non-traditional. But now, the school's commitment to higher education for all is being tested, as its accreditor demands fiscal belt-tightening.
Gohar Momjian works in the chancellor's office.
GOHAR MOMJIAN: The college didn't make the tough budget cuts that other colleges did way back when, when California was going through its crisis.
CHIEN: Over the last five years, California's community college system has lost $1.5 billion in state funding. That kind of budget pressure has led to changes in the way the state looks at higher education.
Paul Fain is a senior reporter at the industry journal Inside Higher Ed. He says a law called the Student Success Act of 2012 included some controversial guidelines for the state's community colleges.
PAUL FAIN: And one of them was to give some priority to students who are first time, full-time, most likely to complete a credential as opposed to some of the noncredit, more nontraditional students.
CHIEN: Fain says the state law aligns well with the federal government's so-called Completion Agenda, a push for colleges to award more degrees with more efficiency.
FAIN: Accreditors are under pressure from the federal government to really crack down and make sure that underperforming colleges really feel some pain.
CHIEN: Advocates of the Completion Agenda have put forward proposals for performance-based funding, where a college could lose money if not enough students are graduating or transferring. But many students at City College aren't seeking degrees. The school's top administrator, Robert Agrella, says they're learning basic skills.
ROBERT AGRELLA: That's not something measurable. You can't put your finger on that. It's much more nebulous.
CHIEN: He says he hopes California's community college system can maintain its open-access policy. But with the state facing continuing fiscal challenges, the pressure is on to make more cuts.
AGRELLA: When money becomes tight, then they gravitate toward looking at what's the cost-benefit analysis. And you can't always measure these things in terms of dollars and cents.
CHIEN: City College of San Francisco is expecting an answer from its accreditor next month. But broader, national questions about the role of a community college aren't going away anytime soon.
For NPR News, I'm Jen Chien.