Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Two bills bring reality to California colleges

The faculties and administrators of California’s public institutions of higher learning often display a certain disdain for the real world.

Those in the cloisters of academe imply that students, their families – and taxpayers – should simply pony up whatever they say they need to operate, without considering competing public and private demands on limited resources.

Call it elitism, reality denial or whatever, but it’s there. And it explains why the state’s collegiate establishment, including academic unions, opposed two pieces of legislation aimed at imposing some reality on their operations.

The Legislature, to its credit, ignored the opposition and passed both measures, and Gov. Jerry Brown, to his credit, signed both.

One, Senate Bill 440, pushes the state university system to make transfers of community college students easier, as the 53-year-old Master Plan for Higher Education envisioned.

Its author, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, had tried in the past to streamline transfers, but ran into powerful opposition from turf-protecting academics.

As the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, has observed, “CCC students often must navigate a complex maze of transfer course requirements, which can make accessing and completing a baccalaureate program difficult.”

SB 440 places pressure on community college and state university officials to reconcile their offerings.

Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, authored the second bill, Assembly Bill 955, to create a pilot program for local community colleges – during lulls in the academic year – to offer certain courses with fees high enough to cover their costs. The aim is allowing students to complete highly congested courses they need to pursue their careers or transfers to a four-year degree program.

Community college academics and administrators bitterly opposed the bill, fearing that it would undermine their pleas for more state money to expand capacity. But the Legislature and Brown enacted it anyway.

“This seems like a reasonable experiment,” Brown said. “Why deny these campuses the opportunity to offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available?”

The community college teachers union denounced the enactment, saying it would “deny equal, open access to working-class Californians.” In reality, however, it would reduce pressure on all students and, as Brown says, is a “reasonable experiment.”

These bills are two small steps toward making the nation’s largest array of public higher education institutions work more collaboratively and cost-efficiently. But they are just small steps and much more effort is needed to connect the University of California, the California State University System and the more than 100 locally directed community colleges with 21st-century reality.