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Current Issue: Summer 2016

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Open Access

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Open Access
By: Debbie Klein & Duane Leonard

California public colleges and universities have long been educational pioneers, emerging as national models in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through their statewide public college and multi-campus state universities. The 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education articulated a path to higher education for a majority of high school students who could not afford, did not qualify for, or simply preferred a two- over a four-year degree. Over the decades, California Community College associate degrees have been conferred on millions of graduates who might never have achieved higher education without the continued mandate of open-access policy of all California Community Colleges.

Access to college for everyone matters. The United States is founded on the ideal and vision of equal opportunity. Today, equal opportunity will be achieved only if everyone has access to higher education. Despite decades of fighting for civil and human rights in the post-WWII era, inequities along the lines of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation persist. Native American, African American, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, ability challenged, immigrant, and economically impoverished populations of all race and ethnic backgrounds disproportionately experience structural inequities stemming from systemic discrimination. With their open-door policy, community colleges are able to meaningfully address these equity and achievement gaps.

Because they are open-access, community colleges are the gateways to higher education, employment opportunity, and career paths for all segments of society. If community colleges maintain and strengthen their inclusive mission, they can continue to develop a more robust society (whose advantages are numerous, not the least of which is an educated, competitive, and diverse workforce).

When students lose access to their community colleges, the point of the system crumbles. During the Great Recession (2007 to early 2010s), over 500,000 students were not funded for spots, despite their driving desire to be educated. In response to this moment of high demand and pressures to become more efficient, the Legislature approved the Student Success Act of 2012, which has been steadily changing the priorities of the California Community Colleges to move students through the process more efficiently, producing more degrees and certificates in shorter periods of time.

In the debate on the Student Success Act, so-called reformers incorrectly pitted “access” against “success.” Recognizing that vulnerable students would get squeezed by the new obsession with completion, FACCC, along with other advocates, argued that what is “broke” is not “broken.” Despite its outward promises of inclusion, the Student Success Act purposefully throttled down enrollment, landing us in our current predicament of stagnant or declining student numbers. In this respect, FACCC’s predictions on changing the open-access promise of community colleges came true; a high price to pay for what could have been compassionate reform.

Increasing fees, changing course offerings, and reducing such statewide student services as EOPS and DSPS are three other ways in which state and local officials can impare the open-access mission of community colleges without openly admitting it. These have all been tried with varying degrees of both success and backlash. In times of increasing budgets, it becomes harder to justify these tactics although it’s commonly expected they will reappear in the next recession.

The current era of Donald Trump has made immigrant and Muslim students particularly vulnerable. This time around, faculty and state officials are on the same page, working to forestall efforts by the federal government to implement de facto or de jure discrimination of our student populations. This is a monumental challenge to which our community colleges, in partnership with CSU and UC, will not forego. While the four-year institutions employ selective-admissions criteria, they recognize the value of our system providing a welcoming and supportive environment for anyone who can benefit from the education.

Current concerns on maintaining California Community Colleges as open-access institutions of higher education include:

•Ensuring continuing access to our most vulnerable populations.
•Ensuring the focus on completion does not limit us to a more privileged student body.
•Messaging and framing the mission of community colleges: college access for everyone is the key to local, state, national, and global success.

Debbie Klein teaches anthropology at Gavilan College and Duane Leonard teaches ESL at Sacramento City College.

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