Class is full!

Why are community-college students paying the price for the state’s budget woes?

dean of humanities and social science at Cosumnes River College

I’ve taught in community college in Sacramento for more than 20 years. I’ve moved into administration now, but I was in the classroom long enough to know that having the chance to go to community college can mean the difference between being able to support oneself and being on the street.

I think of my former student Pearl, who had been homeless before she came to college. It was hard to balance all the claims on her day, but she did—between caring for her grandchild because her daughter was incarcerated, studying, working on campus and giving inspirational talks to other homeless women. Then there was Jake, who came to school in a wheelchair after he’d been paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. His dream was to coach high-school football, though he could no longer play himself. He knew going to college was going to help him—and the scores of kids who needed something to keep them out of trouble. Jake would wheel himself to adaptive P.E. courses, juggle general-education classes and get home in time to take over child care when his wife went to work.

This essay could become a long list of people I’ve taught, in local classrooms, who have similar stories. But before it does, let me say this: By the time you read this, Pearl and Jake, and thousands of students like them in California, will have been told there are no more open classes left for them. California’s community-college students were among those who took the biggest, most vicious hit during this year’s budget battles. The result was many fewer sections of everything from English to chemistry, a much higher price to pay (at least $18 more for every 3-unit class), and the loss of the opportunity for people like Pearl and Jake to make their lives better.

Some people dismiss what is happening in the community colleges as just another story of how Americans are suffering in the midst of the bad economy. But zoom in, and you’ll see what this really means—that every kid just out of high school who can’t afford a university, every adult who is returning to school after a layoff, every immigrant who needs to learn English, every veteran who spent the last few years at war in Middle Eastern sand and every welfare parent who wants to improve his or her lot by getting a degree is facing an uncertain future. Visions of dead-end fast-food jobs, homelessness and worse are not far off.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be patting himself on the back because he didn’t raise taxes, and people who don’t know anyone in community college—and perhaps don’t realize its value—may be breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to foot the bill.

But it’s a sad trade-off, and a potentially dangerous one. Who knows what will happen when we turn away all of these people who thought community college was a dream they could always count on? Like it or not, we’re about to find out.