PUBLIC COLLEGES BELONG TO THE PUBLIC.
The mission statements of community colleges reflect the comprehensive nature of these institutions. More than providers of courses for transfer to a baccalaureate program, they offer lifelong learning opportunities.
Gail O. Mellow, President, LaGuardia Community College
Recently I wrote about the City of Tucson going to great lengths to hide from the public a deal the City made with developers to destroy two Chicano barrios. As discussed below, educational institutions can also be averse to “transparency in government,” a notion that seems to die a violent death when a person transitions from being a candidate to an elected official.
While the City of Tucson matter I reference and the Pima Community College (PCC) I discuss here are rooted in Tucson, the phenomena they present—gentrification, colleges becoming more elitist and exclusionary, etc.—hurt our community wherever they occur, and we need to fight them at every turn.
Community Colleges: treasures in our midst
I have a deep affinity for community colleges. My siblings and I all attended community college. My wife attended PCC, as did both of my sons (one played for PCC’s soccer team). My nephews and nieces attended community college, including PCC. My family’s experience is not unique. The lives of millions of working-class people have been enriched by community colleges.
Community colleges are beacons of hope and opportunity. For hundreds of thousands of professionals, community college was the pathway to a university baccalaureate program. Many of these availed themselves of the developmental education courses offered by community college. Community colleges also allow people to enhance their skills for work promotions, pursue self-development goals, obtain a vocational certificate, and much more. Community colleges are very important to Latinos. Studies show that the majority of Latinos who pursue post-secondary education enroll in community colleges and Latinos enroll in community colleges at a higher rate than students from any other racial or ethnic group. Features such as proximity to home, availability of evening courses, flexible schedules, developmental education, and open admissions underlie these phenomena.
Community colleges have thrived by being centers of educational opportunity open to all. Each community college has distinct features, but open admissions is a bedrock principle of them all. President Obama’s proposal to offer free tuition for students attending community college promises to have a significant impact on Latinos and other working-class constituencies.
“Let’s keep out the riff-raff…”
However, here in Tucson there are efforts to keep certain people out. In 2011 PCC decided to change its open-admissions policy and instead require that all prospective students take an entrance qualifying exam. The title of a former PCC Chief Executive’s Op-Ed piece said it all: “Pima College’s new selective admission policy defies promise of equal access for all.” Shamefully, PCC’s Faculty Senate leadership supported this discriminatory action and led the board and community to believe that the faculty-at-large supported the change.
This life-changing decision was made in secret. The PCC administration and Board of Governors scheduled forums to obtain “input” from the public about the proposed change. It was later disclosed that the board had approved the admissions-policy change before the forums were even scheduled.
OK, we take it back, but…
Predictably, scrapping the open-admissions policy occasioned a huge outcry from students, alumni, community activists, etc. Leading the charge were the Coalition for Accountability, Integrity, Respect and Responsibility (C-FAIRR), a civil-rights advocacy group, and the Pima Open Admissions Coalition (POAC), an organization of PCC retired administrators and faculty. [Full disclosure: I am affiliated with both organizations; my wife is on the Executive Committee of C-FAIRR] The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), who accredits PCC, found that, “The college’s decision to change its admissions policy…demonstrates a lack of understanding of its role in serving the public good in its community.” As a result of this pressure and the threat of losing its accreditation, PCC reinstated its open-admission policy in 2013.
But the damage had been done. In 2012, enrollment dropped by 11% and dropped another 9% in 2013. The HLC noted in a 2013 report that PCC’s admissions policy change fundamentally changed PCC’s mission, which in turn changed the nature and character of its student body. In 2012, over 4,000 applicants were denied admission—72% were Latino, African American, and Native American; 60% were women; and 69% were 20+ years of age or older, all prime PCC constituencies. And that’s not counting those who, anticipating they might be denied admission, simply decided not to even apply.
So let’s go to China…
The decision to exclude those students considered “unworthy” of a higher education is coming home to roost. The loss of thousands of students translates into a huge loss of money. This, combined with deep cuts in state appropriations—this year the Republican Governor and legislature budgeted zero dollars for PCC—has caused a financial crisis at PCC.
Instead of, for example, eliminating highly-paid, superfluous administrative positions (e.g., news articles report that PCC has 12-plus administrators charged with enrollment management, collectively earning over $2 million), to address this loss of revenue, PCC raised resident tuition (to $75.50 per unit, from $58.50) and sent a team to China to recruit students.
The China trip is justified in the name of improving the college’s “diversity,” but its real purpose is money—foreign students pay $329.00 per-unit. Diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, etc., abounds in the Tucson area. We don’t have to go halfway across the world to achieve a diverse student body. PCC is compounding its blunder by making it more expensive for students to attend PCC and by replacing local students of meager means with foreign ones with deep pockets.
Let’s take another whack at the riff-raff…
Recently, by means of the Consent Agenda, where decisions are made without any opportunity for the public to comment, PCC eliminated its Development Education/College Preparatory Policy, which has the same exact effect as eliminating the open-admission policy. The college claims that these courses are just being incorporated into other curricula and that the process is being vetted by campus groups and faculty. If true, this has the effect of making these courses “lesser than” elements, as opposed to stand-alone, important elements. And the same faculty group that lobbied to do away with the open-admissions policy is vetting this. No doubt they will bury the Development Education courses as deeply as they can.
By definition, public educational institutions belong to the public. We need to take them back from elitist administrators, faculty, and board members who consider us riff-raff and operate in secret to put higher education out of the reach of the very people they were founded to serve. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Photos of Pima College used under “Fair Use’ via Pima College website. Tucson and China Wall photo in public domain. All other photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, inc.