The politics of California Community College education

David L. Horne | , Ph.D. | 12/14/2011, 5 p.m.

The vast majority of African American college-going students in this state go to California's Community Colleges--still one of the truly great bargains in America. That being said, there are plenty of current problems in the process.

The 112 campuses of the California Community Colleges (CCC) continue to have highly fluctuating transfer and certified graduation rates. The latest newspaper coverage even says that an educational crisis in graduating transfer students into regular university status is currently in full effect in California. Too many students are dropping out, flunking out, and lingering on well past an expected graduation date, and all of this is costing California tax payers much more money than they can afford.

Although the primary cause of the problem is usually laid at the feet of incompetent counseling, that factor is more stereotype than real. Students are coming in from high schools with such large educational deficits that consistently getting them to a higher level of academic skill and analysis has proven to be exceedingly challenging, and the resulting failure rate is a logical conclusion.

Adding to this problem has been the expected large increase in CCC students--caused both by tuition raises and serious budgetary shortfalls for the UC and CSU systems, and the CSU's Executive Order 665, which mandates that those high school graduates who've applied for admission to any of the 23 CSU campuses, but who cannot do college-level math and English composition, as measured by the Entry Level Mathematics and the English Placement exams, will not generally be admitted anymore, and if admitted, will be given only a one-year probation period to demonstrate the required academic competency before they are "stopped out" and sent back to the community colleges for remedial classes.

Not only are more students coming to the CCC, but more educationally unprepared students are coming. This means many more of them won't graduate and/or transfer.

What can be done to ease this compounded problem, save taxpayer money, and simultaneously assist in the more effective accomplishment of a significant portion of the CCC's mission?

A. An orientation-college success course can be added to the curriculum of each campus in the California Community Colleges. That course will be a one-unit requirement for all students, and would be fundamentally different from currently existing orientation courses taught in the CCC.

(A volunteer skills-building course like this is not effective. The course must be required.)

B. The orientation-college success course would be a rigorous eight-week module that will train students in writing at the college level; in how to take college-level notes; how to do effective outlines at the college level; how to pass college-level exams; how to culturally link math/calculation so that students can more comfortably visualize it as part of their reality, etc.

The emphasis would be on how to traverse the college maze successfully. (Most current orientation courses in California's community colleges are taught by counselors and emphasize enhancing students' confidence in handling college work, time management, how to get around on campus, where mentor and administrative offices are, how to fill out forms, etc.). What too many students lack are practical academic skills relevant to performing successful college-level work regularly, and if that is not addressed directly, the current problem we face will simply get much worse.