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Pushing community college reform too far

Editorial

Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan to overhaul community colleges is potentially harmful to students.

January 27, 2013
  • Students are seen during a Personal Growth and Development class at Pasadena Community College in 2012. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reshape how California's community colleges function.
Students are seen during a Personal Growth and Development class at Pasadena… (Los Angeles Times )

More than any other sector of public education in the state, the California Community Colleges system has been reforming itself in response to thinbudgets and increased demand for classes. It's unclear why Gov. Jerry Brown is on the colleges' case to make more drastic changes when they haven't yet had a chance to fully implement the thoughtful policies they've crafted.

Starting in the fall, the colleges will assess all new students' skills, require them to attend orientation sessions like students at other institutions do, and help them devise an educational plan so that they enroll in the courses they need. The goal is to prevent students from wandering aimlessly through the college system, as they often do now, picking up random credits that don't move them toward their goal but instead increase the chances that they will drop out.

The colleges also are revamping their course-enrollment policies. Currently, new students are allowed to register for courses only after everyone else has done so. That means students who already have accrued far more credits than they need to graduate are allowed to take up space in yet more classes that they don't need while new students are lucky to find a spot in a single class. Beginning in the fall, new students with an education plan move to the front of the line while students with about 50% more credits than they need move to the back. Exceptions would be made in some cases, such as students working on double majors or adults who are back at school for retraining.

Those are good changes. But Brown wants more. He wants to charge students with excess credits the full price of their course work — about $700 per course — a punitive measure that would deter only students without financial resources. It's unnecessary. If students with more credits than they need are given low priority for enrollment, as they would be under the colleges' plan, they would only be able to attend courses that have extra space.

Worse, Brown wants the state to reimburse the colleges only for the students who successfully complete each course.

Many students in community college are the first in their family to attend college, and they make understandable mistakes along the way. They register for courses that end up being too hard or a bad fit, though it might take them a while to figure that out. And some students are simply lazy or disorganized. This isn't the fault of the colleges or the instructors. Brown's plan would give the colleges a strong incentive to dumb down course work and lower standards so that more students pass, or professors might decide to discourage students from taking challenging classes, lest they drop them later.

The Legislature, which approved the earlier community college reforms, should withhold its support from Brown's unnecessary and potentially harmful proposals.

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