California's community colleges need shoring up, financially and academically. They need a budget system that treats them more like higher-education institutions and less like extensions of high school. But their leaders also must face the fact that their schools have academic problems that cannot be cured by money alone.
A state commission is finishing work on recommendations that should help build with this shoring-up process--so long as the process isn't wrecked by a turf fight over who should govern the colleges.
The Commission for the Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education, which will review the structure of all public colleges and universities in California, is looking first at the community colleges because their problems are the most urgent. A report was due in February, but the panel took more time to consider changes in the various boards that oversee the colleges. Changes may ultimately be necessary, but that is a problem that should be dealt with later. If the commission report proposes taking power away from anybody who now has it, that recommendation will overshadow the meat of the report that concentrates on money and academics.
Proposition 13 forced a shift in the community colleges' financial base from local property taxes to state support. That support lagged behind support for the University of California and the California State University system, in part because many legislators felt that the community colleges were not putting the money that they already get to good use and didn't deserve more.
Financial problems were compounded in districts like Los Angeles, which have also lost money because of sharply declining enrollments. State aid is based on attendance at community-college campuses, just as it is in elementary and high schools. Enrollment should be a factor, but budgets for higher education should be based more on the cost of offering courses and maintaining laboratories and other buildings. One of the master plan commission's draft recommendations calls for this kind of budgeting, which makes far more sense.
The draft report also points out that while community colleges have opened the door to success for many students, they have been only a revolving door for others because they were unprepared for higher education. The report strongly endorses open access to community colleges, which remain the first and best hope for many groups in California, and it urges the colleges to continue remedial courses. But the state must also finance better counseling and placement programs. The draft report recommends that colleges be more explicit about the requirements that students must meet, especially for transferring to four-year institutions.
Recalling that community colleges sometimes try to be all things to all people, the master plan commission's draft report also says firmly that these colleges have as their primary missions offering vocational education and preparing students to transfer into the UC or Cal State system or to other colleges. Non-degree courses should remain on a pay-as-you-go system.
The draft contains many points that will be argued over by faculty members, administrators, students and politicians, both state and local. The state should focus its debate on the changes that will improve the community colleges' programs and the way they are financed. There is time later to worry about who's in charge.