Equity, Choice, and the Community College Mission are Worth Our Advocacy

I consider myself a community college success story.  I began my journey at a small, rural, community college as a returning student and 37-year-old mother of two children (not unlike many of the students I have had in my classes).  I had decided to attend college to seek a degree in mathematics after having positive experiences volunteering in my children’s classrooms, where I was usually assigned to the math table.  Seeing the children’s faces light up when they understood a math concept in a new way got me hooked.

I was nervous when I took the first steps to enroll at my local community college.  I signed up for the placement testing and did better than I thought I might after years of primarily using math in a bookkeeping capacity.  I was actually excited that I could take Intermediate algebra, a class I had previously had in high school more than 20 years before.  Because I wanted to teach math, I did not want to miss the opportunity to understand the concepts (not just he algorithms I remembered) and I chose to enroll in Elementary algebra.  From there, I worked my way to transfer level math and, eventually, a degree in mathematics.

Had AB 705 (Irwin) been in place at the time, it is highly unlikely that I would have pursued a mathematics degree.  Even though I had taken algebra 2 in high school, that was many years before and I would not have had the confidence to enroll in a precalculus course, even if a support course was available.  It is also unlikely that I would have been successful because that automatic placement would have been enough to keep me from enrolling. 

Some would have us believe that “those students would not be successful anyway,” but this outlook comes from a deficit mindset that discounts the unique interests, goals, and abilities of the individual students we serve.  Had AB 705 (Irwin) been in place when I returned to college, there would have been one less woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), one less mentor for other women pursuing STEM degrees, and one less community college success story.

When I read the Community College Mission Statement in Ed Code, I see myself.  “The California Community Colleges shall, as a primary mission, offer academic and vocational instruction… for both younger and older students, including those persons returning to school…  In addition to the primary mission of academic and vocational instruction, the community colleges shall offer instruction and courses to achieve all of the following:  The provision of remedial instruction for those in need of it…”  If you have not read the mission statement in a while, I encourage you to do so.  It is beautiful in its inclusivity and its vision.

As faculty at California’s community colleges, it is important that we advocate for the Community College Mission as it calls for our students to have both choice and opportunity.  The recent introduction of AB 1705 (Irwin), a bill that is designed to further restrict the availability of math courses that best fit a student’s goals, interests, and needs, has me feeling discouraged.  In our classrooms we are encouraged to give students choice and agency over their own learning.  At the same time, our institutions are working to restrict choice and agency for our students.  This is not an equitable solution.  Arbitrary metrics and directives that result in community colleges no longer offering classes below transfer level have a negative impact on our students and our communities.

I am now a tenured faculty member at the same community college where I started my journey.  It is a dream come true.  I teach, encourage, and mentor students from diverse backgrounds who have equally diverse goals for themselves.  When I think of my students who likely would have been negatively impacted by AB 705 (Irwin) and AB 1705 (Irwin), I think of Jake, a returning student who had turned his life around to create a new start for himself.  He completed elementary and intermediate algebra, earned his degree, and successfully got a job with benefits that allow him to support his family. He also benefitted from doing something he never thought he could do – algebra. 

Jonathan, a young Latino who left agricultural work to attend college, enrolled in pre-transfer math courses for a Career Technical Education (CTE) certificate in Sustainable Technologies. He fell in love with math and is now a graduate of UC Davis and a civil engineer turning creative ideas into physical structures. 

Maria enrolled in elementary algebra so she could help her children with their math homework.  She would study when they were in school so that she would be ready to answer their questions in the evening.  Together, they built a successful learning community. 

A current student, who is living with disabilities, has no desire to transfer but instead set a personal goal to get through intermediate algebra.  They successfully passed pre-algebra and are thrilled to be learning elementary algebra.  They are dedicated to their studies and are learning more math than they ever thought they would.  Sadly, they will not reach the goal they set for themselves because we will not be offering intermediate algebra in the fall. 

AB 1705 (Irwin) and arbitrary directives that do not take into account a student’s personal goals have put this student’s dream of passing intermediate algebra just out of reach.  There is no equity in that. We are working with the student to redefine their goals but they are feeling defeated and may not enroll in another math course.  We must advocate for students like these.

The gathering of data for analysis, when properly done, can help us to make informed decisions about best practices.  The trouble with big sets of data, however, is that the individual is generally lost.  Where do we see Jake, Jonathan, Maria, and yes, even me, in the data that supposedly tell us that students who start below transfer will not be successful?  Where do we see students who value an education but do not want to transfer?  When we impose our own definitions of student success, we take away our students’ choices and agency.  We place on them our own definition of success and silence their voices in defining their own goals and path.  We essentially say they are not qualified to make these decisions about their own lives and that we will tell them what is best for them.  I do not see equity in that.


FACCC blog posts are written independently by FACCC members and encompass their experiences and recommendations.
FACCC neither condemns nor endorses the recommendations herein.

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