Sunday, October 25, 2009

I want to learn. Please let me in, California.

I have only shared a slice of myself through my blog posts through the past couple of years. I've shared my passion for learning and my belief that technology can effectively foster more active, critical experiences for our students than the types of experiences they too frequently encounter in higher education today. In this blog post, I wish to hone in on a more focused issue that is the cornerstone of higher education in the US and, perhaps, the most vulnerable of all in some of our 50 states today -- affordable access to all.

I am a Californian. I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, in south San Jose in a beautiful area near the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains area known as Almaden Valley. My father was a research chemist for more than 30-years at the IBM Research Lab and my mother raised me and my two sisters and was actively involved in our schools (I have a memory of a friend in elementary school asking me if my mom "owned the school" -- just a taste of how "involved" she was). Needless to say, the importance of education was instilled in me from early on. But what my parents actively instilled in me was more than just the importance of getting an "education."

My father came from a very poor family in New Jersey in which he was one of fifteen children. His mother died suddenly before he completed junior high and his father pushed him to work early to make money for the family. My dad grew up with a relentless passion for reading, one that has never ceased. He tells me stories about how he would be scolded for "wasting time" if his father discovered him reading a book, rather than "working." So to fulfill his passion for learning, he would take books from dumpsters while nobody was looking and read them under the covers by flashlight at night.

After high school, he tried diligently to get a college degree in New Jersey but it proved too challenging and expensive. He couldn't seem to work enough hours during the day as a mechanic to still have time and energy to go to school and study at night. And then something magical occurred. There was a football coach who was spreading a magical story about schools in California giving away college educations for free. These magical wonderlands were referred to as "community colleges."

My father gave up everything in his home town -- he quit his job, said good-bye to his friends and family, and left town in his car with only dollars in his pocket. He drove across the country to a small town in California called Porterville where he attended Porterville Community College. He began taking classes there, for free. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and now he was the first to be attending college. He fulfilled the requirements for his AA degree and then moved on to San Jose State, part of the now 23-campus CSU system, where he complete both an undergraduate degree and master's degree. Then he proceed out of state to Iowa State where he successfully completed his PhD in Chemistry. My dad is, to me, the greatest community college success story that exists.

Rarely do we think of a community college contributing to a college student's success when we hear of him earning a PhD. But if you were to ask my dad which institution was the most critical to his success, he would tell you it was Porterville Community College, no doubt. In fact, just a couple of years ago, he returned to the campus with two classmates, roughly 50 years after they graduated, just to pay homage to the campus that granted them access to education. If it wasn't for Porterville CC, that PhD would have been nothing other than a day dream in the mind of a tired car mechanic in New Jersey. My dad's story reminds me everyday why community colleges' commitment to affordable access to higher education by all is so very crucial to supporting success to the future of our country. And I think of his story each time I read a story about the current California budget cuts, respond to a former student who wants me to write a letter of recommendation for applications, or look into the eyes of my two young children and wonder about their own futures.

Imagine, just imagine, how many students in the next few years alone will be squeezed out of the higher education system in California due to the current budget crisis. Just this year, public higher ed institutions have coped with over $1 billion in budget cuts. Over two years, these cuts are projected to reach the $3 billion mark -- it's going to get much worse, folks.

Community colleges in California are already stretched beyond their current budget capacity. The public needs to clearly understand that a crowded community college does not receive the money from student tuition. This money is returned directly to the California general fund. CCCs are funded based on a growth formula determined by the state. If a college exceeds the growth they are allotted, they are serving students they don't have money to support. In other words, community colleges do not financially benefit from crowded classrooms. That's the harsh reality of community colleges.

CSUs and UCs seem to be in dismal situations as well for the near future. CSUs are squeezing out students for the 2010-11 academic year. Applications are currently being accepted for Fall 2010 but marketing efforts clearly suggest that students should expect the application doors to close early due to the large volume coming in early and the reduced number of seats available next year. Fresno State students organized a walkout in mid October to protest the cuts to the CSU system and higher edu, overall. According to the blog of Diane Blair, Communication Professor at CSU Fresno:
For the first time in Fresno State’s history all admissions, including transfers, have been canceled for the spring semester. In Fall 2010, the university announced that it will reduce enrollment by approximately 400 eligible students. The CSU system-wide is calling for a reduction of enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years. High school students who have been told that if they do well in school they can earn a college degree are facing a broken promise because meeting the minimum eligibility requirements will no longer guarantee a student a place in the CSU.

Do they look angry? You would be too if you were potentially now being squeezed out of a higher educational system that has raised your tuition 182% since 2002. Not quite the "golden state" anymore, is it?

I can't say that I fully understand how we got ourselves into this mess but we need to understand what we're doing to our future, to the future of our children, by cutting educational funding. No cost to low-cost higher education, which is the type of learning community colleges provided in the 1960s in a face-to-face environment, offers everyone an opportunity to learn, to broaden their opportunities, to challenge their minds, and reach for a life beyond the social confinements they identify as their only "reality."

Pat Morrison's public radio broadcast, "State of the State," featuring interviews with Bonnie Rice, UC Regent and partner in the Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank, and William Hauck, current member and former Chairman, Board of Trustees, California State University and President, California Business Roundtable, is an excellent resource for understanding the magnitude of the cuts to the future economic situation of California -- although, listening to it was more bone chilling than any halloween movie I've seen yet this year. According to Hauck, recent reports indicate that the budget cuts are projecting that the state of California will have a deficit of 1,000,000 baccalaureate degrees by 2025. The natural result of this will be for businesses to leave California and begin to prosper in other regions of the nation that appropriately invest in producing an effective workforce. This really does affect all of us in California.

I began this post with a local slant and I'm going to finish it there too. I am concerned about the future of country and my state and, more specifically, the amazingly innovative fabric of Silicon Valley that I love so dearly. I wonder, are the CEOs of the high tech giants in our region concerned about the pinch on higher education in California? Or not? Are you concerned enough to foster partnerships with higher education to offset these unprecedented budget cuts? Clearly, moving forward, in the best interests of our students -- and the future of our state -- will take an innovative mindset and, really, isn't Silicon Valley the mecca of the world for entrepreneurial thinking? Can't we utilize the strengths of our own community to get us through this challenge? Every great entrepreneur understands that within turmoil and tragedy there lies tremendous opportunity. Can't we find a better way within this train wreck to collaborate, to partner, to serve the needs of the future generations of this amazing state that has so much to offer? I can't bear to see California, the state that symbolized the pathway to learning and opportunity to my own father just forty years ago, begin to crumble away.

Students, hang in there. Don't lose your passion. You will achieve your dream. Please feel free to share your stories. We need to hear them.


Barry Brown said...

I feel the same way, Michelle. And my own father has a surprisingly similar story, going from a high school dropout in South Dakota to a PhD in anthropology from Cornell via El Camino Jr. College in Los Angeles.

I recently ran across another blog post: was the 2009 recession caused by our public education system?

I can't help but worry that as budgets get tighter, we'll rein in courses that aren't among the three R's and focus on "core courses" and "transferrability," whatever those are. In the process, we'll lose out on those things that make a person whole and may lead us toward a population taught that short term gains and savings trump long-term prosperity.

Alishea said...

We run the newspaper and recently Kris was voted into the student senate. The ASSC wants to promote awareness to students, because they really don't understand what's going on. Every issue we have had an article reporting about the budget. The ASSC and the S.I.P think that's not enough.

My idea was a giant fundraiser-like a Rock for education type event that promotes awareness, gathers the community & students and raises a few pennies for education. Personally, I think it might be slightly more effective than a walk out style protest. Many feel that we are in "too deep" to even bother doing something, others are for it.
Any thoughts on how to approach it? It's all slightly overwhelming with teachers worried about jobs/students worried about classes/transferring/etc.

amberman said...

Good article, Michelle. It's hard not to feel a little helpless right now. My sense is that we are on the verge of opening up new models of education, as radical as the community college system was 50 years ago. It can't happen too soon, because the old models will never get enough funding to meet the demand.

kloeamongtheturks said...

I'm glad to see your passion and indepth coverage of these issues. As an adjunct in the arts, I've gone from teaching six courses at four schools to teaching only one class this semester. Can't survive at this rate, and my students also suffer. Am sort of heartbroken about it, cause I love teaching.
The only good thing is I have more time for my own work!

Still Life in South America said...

I read the NY Times this morning and thought of your post. The article is called "New Meaning for Night Class at 2-Year Colleges."

It looks like schools have the interest but not the budget. I am an adjunct and feel that we need to serve these students because they need us now more than ever.

Your site is terrific; I will be returning. Cheers!

Michelle Pacansky-Brock said...

Barry-thanks for sharing your thoughts (and it's nice to hear from you). I have been thinking this week about how much of California's population has been influenced by the lure of low cost higher education. People certainly don't come here for a low cost of living. Thanks for sharing your dad's story...amazing. And your thoughts about budget cuts leading to an overall decision making process about what subjects students have to choose from in college concerns me too, especially in the 21st century when innovation, creativity and critical thinking skills are paramount to success. Are we risking having our college curriculum looking like our public elementary school curriculum? I think that's what you're really asking, right?

Alishea, as always, thanks for sharing the student perspective. I shared your interests in student activism with professor Megan Seely. You two should connect and put together something brilliant!

Michael, oh how I hope you are right! And if I can play a role in those conversations, please let me know how. We desperately need new models for education and I'm very interested in understanding what they'll look like.

Kloe, it's hard to see passionate teachers forced to leave the classroom due to budget cuts. Our students need passionate educators. Put that passion into your art and it will come back to us all in another beautiful way (and hopefully someone will buy it too!).

"Still Life," thanks for the comment and for sharing the NY Times article. Wow! They're holding classes at 2:30AM to meet student enrollment demands! That's startling! First, that goes to show you how badly students need classes and, secondly, it's interesting to see how different things are in other states. In CA, our community colleges (we have 110 of them) are literally turning students away because we have no money to pay for adding additional sections. Different funding mechanism, I'd imagine. This goes back to Michael's comment -- time for a new model to serve our current needs.

Thanks everyone for the great dialogue!