Better access to community college

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I am a believer in the power of community colleges because I am proof that they work.

More than 20 years ago, I dropped out of high school, lived in my Volkswagen and attended Santa Barbara City College. At the time, I was homeless but undeterred. My focus in life was unclear.

At Santa Barbara City College, I met professors who helped, guided and mentored me. Before long, I had transferred to UC Berkeley, and my life and career was headed in the right direction. If not for the great leaders at Santa Barbara City College, my life could look totally different today.

So when we talk about ways to improve community colleges, the conversation is very personal for me. No one is a bigger believer and advocate for community colleges than I am.

That is why I care so deeply and passionately about AB 955. I have proposed AB 955 because I believe it is one reasonable approach to help our community colleges.

As a legislator, one of my jobs is to seek solutions to the problems that face our communities. It’s never easy. As I have learned during my decade of public service, the best and most reasonable solutions require sacrifice, compromise and a willingness to meet in the middle. Doing nothing doesn’t work

Let’s look at some of the facts:

Last year, at the start of the fall 2012 semester, more than 500,000 students were left on waiting lists and effectively turned away at community colleges throughout the state due to a lack of class availability.

Classes were full because community colleges have cut 21 percent of their course offerings during the last four years in response to budget cuts.

When community colleges turn away students who desire to learn, community colleges are failing at their mission. When community colleges force students to wait one to four years to transfer because they don’t offer enough courses for all students, community colleges are failing at their mission.

We do know that the passage of Proposition 30 will boost California’s educational system at all levels. But after over $1.5 billion in cuts over the last four years, fixing access at community colleges will take a long-term, multipronged strategy. No single answer is the only answer.

We all, in our respective roles, must tap into our creative sides and bring forth an array of ideas,  knowing that it’s going to take imagination and a willingness to take risks to turn our educational system around.

AB 955 would allow community colleges to voluntarily offer summer or winter intersession courses at full cost. Currently, the state subsidizes the fees that community college students pay to take classes. A three-unit class today costs students $138.

These courses would be in addition to the regular state-subsidized classes and would not replace any classes. In fact, my bill doesn’t allow colleges to replace subsidized classes with nonsubsidized courses. The idea behind offering summer and winter courses at a higher rate is to allow students who need one more class to pay the full price, roughly $600, so they could transfer to a university or move into the workplace sooner. Students who take these courses would also free up a spot in the fall and spring course offerings, increasing access for all students.

Yes, $600 is more expensive than $138, but only in the short term. What’s the cost to a student forced by the current lack of classes to have to face one to four more years of living expenses to complete his or her education? It’s a lot more than $600. What is the value to the student of being able to take and finish the class and then transfer or move into the workplace? It’s a lot more than $600. By waiting, students still face the possibility of getting shut out of the class again.

This bill would not mandate anything. It only gives community colleges the option of offering the classes. Those individuals who rightfully want to protect the open-access system of community colleges have it within their power to offer the classes, or not, to do so sparingly, or not, and to decide whether they work, or not.

My optional plan is far preferable to the other plan on the table. Some people have suggested that the best way to solve the problem of access at community colleges is to gradually raise fees for all students across the board. I believe this is a bad approach. Raising fees for everybody will hurt students and further block people from achieving their educational goals.

Please join me in finding solutions to bring greater access to our community college system and dramatically reduce the number of students turned away.

Das Williams is the 37th District California Assemblyman and Chair of the Higher Education Committee.