By: Jennifer Wheary
March 28, 2012
California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott put some perspective on the sorry state of educational opportunity in an address last week:
California community colleges have shed more than 300,000 students since 2009 because the students cannot get into classes, and the toll is likely to grow unless the state reverses course and pumps more money into higher education," he was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.
Scott did not pull any punches when he expressed his dismay at the lack of support for community colleges:
We should be working together to rebuild California and making it a better place for our children...Dreams are necessary to live. If we keep dashing college dreams and denying opportunities for Californians, we're going to lose our best and brightest to other states, which will only further exacerbate our state's economic situation.
To be specific, cutting off access to community colleges is a direct assault on higher education for low-income students and families living in poverty. A report released last month by the American Association of Community Colleges finds that community colleges "provide access to nearly half of all minority undergraduate students and more than 40 percent of undergraduate students living in poverty."
In the Scott article, the Los Angeles Times also reported that California State University has decided to freeze most admissions (into four-year programs) for spring 2013 for all but a few hundred community college transfer students who will be able to matriculate at just eight of 23 Cal State campuses. The decision will effectively shut out an estimated 16,000 others. According to the paper, instead of transferring to four-year programs, these would-be transfer students will likely remain at already overburdened community colleges, meaning less access for recent high school graduates and the unemployed looking to enter the two-year system for the first time.
Cal State officials seem to feel they have no choice but to curtail access. In California's 2011-2012 budget, universities lost $750 million in state funding, and community colleges lost $564 million. In the wake of these cuts, California community colleges have reduced course offerings by 20 percent.
In a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, Jeff Selingo brought up an important point about the consequences of California's decisions. The headline of the piece says it all: "For Have-Nots, the Rockier Road to a College Degree Increases the Appeal of Alternatives." Selingo talks about alternatives such as StraighterLine, a company which offers college-level courses online at a low price, explaining on its website.
For just $99 a month plus a $39 per course registration fee, you can take as many for-credit college courses as you want. We offer nearly 40 online courses, in the Sciences, Humanities, English, Math and Business. When you enroll with StraighterLine, you take our online, self-paced college courses in the comfort of your own home. If you pass those courses, they automatically transfer for full credit when you enroll in one of our accredited partner colleges.
Credits are meant to be transferable to degree programs at two or four-year schools. The company has had mixed success in California, often facing a double standard. Cal State accepts StraighterLine's credits for military students, for example, but not for any civilians who take the classes.
Selingo's point is that with college becoming more inaccessible due to affordability concerns or universities clamping down on student quotas, those interested in furthering their education will have no choice but to pursue alternatives with companies like StraighterLine, or for-profit colleges, or other non-traditional education providers.
On the one hand, having more educational alternatives might not be a bad thing. Individuals learn in a wide variety of ways and in a wide range of contexts. But we should keep in mind that, as traditional four-year schools and community colleges become more selective and less available to students due to declining resources, they risk turning into gatekeepers who end up keeping low-income and poor students from pursuing the same education as middle-class and rich students.
Framed like this, a study of the consequences of forcing low income and poor students out of the public system and into newly emerging alternatives becomes much more a moral question. Selingo writes:
In public forums about the drastic changes that higher ed may undergo in the coming years, one question inevitably gets asked of those advocating market disruption: Would the alternatives to the traditional degree pathway be good enough for their own children?
Perhaps instead of dancing around the question, we should ask directly: Do children deserve different educational options based solely on their parents' income?