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Open-door community colleges benefit all Californians

September 26, 2012|By Les Boston
  • All 64 desks are occupied (with dozens' more students on the wait list) for an accounting class at Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa on Sept. 10.
All 64 desks are occupied (with dozens' more students on the wait list)… (Los Angeles Times )

One dreary article after another on community colleges has appeared in The Times, most recently Sunday's "California's community colleges staggering during hard times." Against the backdrop of budget shortfalls, reporting agencies tasked with assessing the effectiveness of community colleges focus on things that can be easily counted and exclude things that do count but cannot be easily tabulated. The state and the people lose resources that enrich state and people.

As one who taught at a community college when it served its community fully, I am saddened by what is not counted and is, therefore, lost.

First, with an open door, dropouts returned. ("Remember me? I was in your class two years ago.") Reasons for not continuing vary. Some completed a class at intervals before gaining traction. Some may have enrolled in different colleges with or without listing the previous colleges on applications. Some accumulated enough credits to complete a program, and some didn't. All of them gained some knowledge, some perspective, some awareness that enriched their lives and made them better informed citizens. That is a significant benefit to individuals and the state. Are all those students ever counted? Are their stops and starts reflected in any records?

Second, those who enrolled and did not graduate or transfer could still list some college experience on job applications. Employers like the idea of having employees on the payroll who have gone to college, whether the jobs call for some higher education or not. Those persons pay more income and sales taxes than they would have without college. They benefit. The state benefits. Is there a measure of dollar amounts?

Third, many of those students enrolled in college simply because it was there, because a friend enrolled or because their parents gave them the option of going to college or getting a job. Classes taken, perhaps randomly, have given many students definite objectives. They benefit. The state benefits. Are there records of spotty work becoming focused?

Fourth, enrollment in community colleges has kept many individuals off welfare or out of jail. When a student told me that if it hadn't been for his time at Los Angeles Valley College he would've been in jail, I thought that remarkable and mentioned it at lunch. Other teachers said that was old news to them. The students benefited. The state saved welfare and incarceration costs. What study could count those benefits?

Fifth, the personal enrichment classes are a benefit not to be summarily ended. I enrolled in a yoga class and philosophy classes that certainly benefited me and my teaching. Some of the students in my short story and creative writing classes were recently out of high school; some were older; some already had bachelor's degrees. That mix made those classes more valuable to all. Students participated in the publication of the campus' literary magazine, an enrichment for the college. One mature student also took classes in other departments and, according to other teachers, made their classes better. Another student of an uncertain age, with limited speech and confined to a wheelchair, wrote uplifting poetry. Interaction with other active minds opened a closed life and became a window to worlds she would not otherwise have seen.

The Times has editorialized on the plight of community colleges. Columnist Michael Hiltzik made a cogent call earlier this year for a return to a tuition-free University of California system in which he named distinguished graduates of a free UC. A free community college education produced many who have made significant contributions. Free associate's and bachelor's degrees are an investment that pays off -- not an expense.

Because of their multiple purposes, community colleges have been an unmeasureable treasure for California. The narrowing of objectives is a sad loss. It will be sadder if current budget constraints make that narrowing permanent.

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Les Boston is a retired professor of English at Los Angeles Valley College.

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