Big changes coming to vital community colleges

California’s 114 community colleges are the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education, overshadowed by the state’s four-year universities and not getting much respect.

That’s true even though the community colleges’ 2.1 million full- and part-time students are more than three times the combined enrollments of the University of California and the California State University System.

More importantly, low-cost, conveniently located community colleges are the primary gateway into post-high school job training and four-year degrees for those who would otherwise be stuck on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Some big changes are coming to the system; some of them from Gov. Jerry Brown, who began his political career a half-century ago as a community college trustee in Los Angeles and will end it this year.

Under his prodding, the Legislature has approved a new state-operated online community college that he says will give workers displaced by technology or other circumstances new opportunities to acquire marketable skills.

“I want people to be able to open their own imaginations whether they are 15 or 50. Now (students) have a real opportunity to not only learn but to get a certificate and get skills to earn more money, advance and pursue their dreams,” Brown told the state community college board after signing legislation for the online college.

Brown and the Legislature are also overhauling how the colleges are financed, giving them more state aid but conditioning some money on how well colleges are preparing students for jobs or transfer to four-year institutions.

It’s meant to be a carrot to encourage better performances by local colleges, who previously had been given allocations based on enrollment, but it’s also something of an anomaly.

The governor has stoutly resisted performance measures for K-12 schools, even for his program of directing more state aid to help poor and “English-learner” students raise their academic skills.

He calls that reluctance “subsidiarity,” meaning trusting local education officials to do the right thing, and has rejected pleas of education reformers for more accountability.

It’s a little odd that he would reject such accountability for K-12 schools but insist on it for community colleges.

Still another Brown-backed change is called “California College Promise.” Participating community colleges may provide financial incentives and guaranteed transfers to four-year colleges for community college students meeting certain criteria. The program also envisions community colleges partnering with K-12 schools to improve college preparation.

Brown, however, is not the only source of change for the community colleges.

This month, the state community college board approved an agreement that allows students who have completed required lower-division work in some majors to transfer as juniors to private, nonprofit colleges and universities. While students have sought such transfers in the past, the new agreement provides a more direct pathway for admission.

But perhaps the biggest change coming, albeit slowly, to the state’s community colleges is allowing some of them to offer four-year “baccalaureate” degrees in some fields.

Nine community colleges awarded 135 such degrees this year under a pilot program, involving such fields as dental hygiene, mortuary science and ranch management.

The state Senate has passed a bill to extend the pilot program, but it faces stiff opposition from faculty unions and the Assembly has killed extension legislation in the past.

California has a looming shortage of college-educated workers and if the gap is to be closed, community colleges must be full partners and not merely academic stepchildren.

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