Mo’ money, mo’ problems: Supporters of City College of San Francisco gathered in front of city hall in March to protest recent cuts and reorganization at the community college. Credit:

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On a recent July evening, I took a walk through San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, or SoMa, as it’s called, which has transformed in recent years into a gritty-yet-swanky world-renowned hub of the tech start-up industry.

Twitter, Zynga, Pinterest, AirBnb, and Uber, to name only a handful of companies, were launched in these cavernous, converted warehouses years ago, and, after the city considerably sweetened the deal, they’ve agreed to stick around. SoMa’s bustling economy is now Exhibit A in Mayor Ed Lee’s long-term plan to make San Francisco the epicenter of the digital economy—the place where, as he likes to say, people come “to grow the jobs and companies of the future.”

On its face, his plan seems to be working. Job growth in the San Francisco metro area and the South Bay has expanded at more than twice the national rate in recent years and even the historically poorer East Bay has outpaced the U.S. average. The median income in the region continues to be the highest in the state of California and average rental rates are keeping pace, shooting up nearly 30 percent in 2011 in places like SoMa and then again in 2012. The city’s famously liberal rent control and loitering policies have created, by accident, picture-perfect vignettes of these rapidly changing times. During my visit, I watched a homeless man help a twentysomething kid parallel-park a Tesla.

But the breathless boom of new industry is not the only story SoMa has to tell. Walk a few blocks northeast from Twitter’s headquarters, and you’ll find the City College of San Francisco’s downtown center—one of a dozen or so campuses scattered across the city. Earlier on the same afternoon of my visit, the regional accrediting commission announced its decision to strip the seventy-eight-year-old institution of its accreditation next year, citing broken governance and fiscal mismanagement. Protests erupted almost immediately and the college announced it would appeal the decision, but as it stands now, City College is scheduled to close its doors, or be co-opted by another institution, next July.

If that happens, it will mark by many measures the most catastrophic implosion of a community college in our nation’s academic history. And more to the point, City College’s roughly 85,000 students, most of whom are minority or working class, will be out of luck. While they’ll be allowed to transfer with their credits, commute to another institution, or simply stick it out during the turmoil, the truth is that many won’t. They will be added instead to the roster of hundreds of thousands of students in the last decade who have enrolled in a community college in the greater San Francisco Bay Area with the hope of getting a credential or degree, of clawing their way to a better job and into the middle class, but have left school empty-handed.

After all, while City College is unique in many ways—it’s huge and enjoys the generous support of a wealthy tax base, which recently approved a local parcel tax to keep the school solvent—many colleges in the Bay Area aren’t doing so hot either. Using federal data sets tracking the percentage of students who graduate or transfer within three years and the total degrees awarded per 100 students—the same metrics used by the well-respected Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence—the Washington Monthly ranked 1,011 community colleges in the country and found that nearly all the schools in the Bay Area are bottom-feeders.

San Francisco City College ranked 842. In the East Bay, Laney College slid in at 882. The College of Alameda was an abysmal 971 and nearby Berkeley City College was, astoundingly, even worse, at 982—just twenty-nine spots away from last place.

In the region just south of San Francisco—the cities that Facebookers and Googlers pass every day on their morning commutes from the city—the picture was equally grim. San Bruno’s Skyline College scored a relatively sparkling 772, but neighboring College of San Mateo, where a director of information technology was recently charged for selling the school’s computer equipment and embezzling the cash, ranked 845. Cañada College ranked a pitiful 979.

North of the city, the College of Marin, where the community college foundation board dissolved last fall and are now involved in a lawsuit over “spending improprieties,” ranked 839.

That picture was confirmed when we added to those rankings a second metric: how the schools performed on the most recently available Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), a respected measure of how well institutions follow research-based best practices for learning—the number of books and papers students are assigned, for instance, or the amount of interaction with faculty. Almost all the Bay Area schools were again clustered at the bottom of the list. San Francisco City College, with below-average CCSSE scores in all five categories, clocked in at forty-second worst nationwide. And the College of Alameda—just a quick ferry ride from those humming streets of SoMa—has some of the very worst combined CCSSE and graduation statistics in America.

So the question here is clear: How is it that a region of the world that prides itself on its booming growth and vibrant market—on “growing the jobs and companies of the future”—presides over a system of higher education that is so broken for so many?

The same question might be asked of the state itself. California’s community colleges granted only 10.6 certificates or degrees per 100 students enrolled over a three-year period. That’s almost 40 percent worse than the national average, which itself isn’t exactly something to write home about. Nationwide, 14.2 percent of community college students earn a certificate or degree, or transfer, within three years. Among black and Latino students, the overall failure rate, both in California and nationwide, is even higher.

That’s bad news for the Bay Area and California, bad news for the nation, and especially bad news for the working class. With nine out of the top ten skilled job openings in the next decade in California alone expected to require a post-secondary credential of some sort, the failure of the community colleges in a region otherwise characterized by booming growth will levy a major blow not only to the economy, but also to the very notion of upward mobility in this country.

There are two things you need to know about the California community college system. The first is that it’s huge. Of the 1,050 or so public community colleges nationwide, 112 are in California. All told, the state system enrolls about 2.4 million people—roughly a fourth of all community college students in the country—most of whom are low-income, first-generation college students, or minorities, and many are not prepared to take on college-level work. Serving those students is an intimidating mandate, but also one on which the whole system of higher education in California was founded.

Back in 1960, as part of California’s heady Master Plan for Higher Education, the community colleges were charged with the task of acting as a great equalizing force in the state. The idea was that, after high school, anyone could enroll in one of these ubiquitous, open-access institutions and either earn an associate’s degree or a vocational credential, or transfer to a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) (even more elite) campus. For decades, California’s three-tier system was the envy of the world, in no small part because of the pluralistic ethos embodied by the community college system—an equal-opportunity gateway to all higher education.

Fifty years later, the Master Plan has been hobbled by underfunding, but the community college tier—gummed up by poor management and a lack of state coordination—has been slammed worst of all. The recession alone brought an $809 million hit to the community college system—a blow that, between 2007 and 2010, added up to a cut of almost 16 percent in total funding, or $1,400 per full-time student. In the past few years, California community colleges have turned away or wait-listed roughly half a million people, and those who have enrolled have faced skeletal student services and unavailable classes. Almost across the board, student success rates have tanked. From 2002 to 2010, the total graduation rate at California’s community colleges slipped by 9.5 percent.

Last fall, voters passed Proposition 30, temporarily increasing income and sales taxes in the state to shore up funding for education and provide a much-needed reprieve for the community college system. But it’s hardly a long-term fix. Reformers tend to pine for the days before 1978, the year that California voters approved Proposition 13, uncoupling property taxes from funding for education and transferring funding prerogatives to the state. Since then, the community colleges have had to fight for increasingly limited funds in Sacramento, battling it out against the K-12, CSU, and UC systems. Year after year, the community colleges have fallen victim to what one administrator described to me as the “Jan Brady problem”: the least “pretty” of California’s three sisters of higher education, it’s perennially “overshadowed and under-loved.”

The second thing you need to know about the California community college system is that there’s basically no one at the helm. Unlike the CSU and UC systems, which are organized in top-down, centrally controlled structures—the campuses act as satellites of one singular university—the community college system is more akin to a confederacy of semiautonomous fiefdoms.

That goes back to the 1960s, too. The Master Plan swept together what had been an unconnected smattering of junior colleges, each controlled by a popularly elected local district board of trustees, and put them under the supervision of the California Department of Education, but each of the districts remained autonomous. In 1967 the state created the California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) to provide more oversight for the districts, but its authority, then as now, was more titular than real. The CCCCO has the ability, for example, to establish “minimum standards” and best practices advising colleges’ operations, but they have little control over what the local boards actually do, or who is on them.

But while most decisions are made at the district board level, the district boards of trustees don’t have a free hand either. According to so-called shared governance laws, which apply to the whole community college system, the district board of trustees shares its governing power with campus-level interest groups—including faculty, students, administration, and staff. The most powerful campus interest group is the academic senate, which is elected by the faculty at each college. At most colleges, the academic senate is run by members of the faculty union, and the two bodies’ policy agendas are often identical.

This system of weak state oversight and diffuse, shared local governance works fine in some districts. In others, it’s a big ol’ mess, with monthly district board meetings devolving as often as not into hair-pulling, mudslinging turf wars that feel a little like Robert’s Rules of Order meets Lord of the Flies.

Take City College of San Francisco, for example. At a board meeting in April 2012, the president, John Rizzo, anticipating the usual chaos, began with a sheepish plea: Can we all please “carry over the love”? he asked. Can we just “work collaboratively on this”? It was not to be.

A couple of hours into the meeting, Rizzo raised a motion to change the way City College’s English and math departments did their placement tests. The motion was, at heart, totally uncontroversial. The tweak in policy had been proposed by faculty, backed by the academic senate, and applauded by both the board and assembled student groups for making it quicker and easier for students to move through remedial classes and on to courses that would advance them to a credential or degree. The only question up for discussion that Thursday was when the policy would be implemented. The board and the assembled students wanted the policy to go into effect by the following fall semester. The faculty wanted it to go into effect at some point in the future. The fall semester was too soon, they said, as the faculty would not be working over the summer.

On the strength of that disagreement, the entire board meeting cleaved into two howling camps. At one point, members of the audience began, quite literally, screaming at each other—“Shame on you!” “No, shame on you!”—while Rizzo, banging his gavel, blinked wearily into the crowd.

After a while, the real root of the argument became clear. Each of the two camps—the board versus the academic senate—was convinced that it should have decision-making power over when that placement policy would be implemented. At one point, members of the academic senate took turns at the podium reading aloud from the portion of the California Code of Regulations that describes how the shared governance policy works: the district board is obligated to “rely primarily” on and reach “mutual agreement” with the academic senate, they read, in all matters affecting academics.


To the streets: Students, faculty, and board members at City College of San Francisco protested the July announcement that the college will lose its accreditation next year.

“It’s absurd that the board would think they don’t have to take faculty decisions into account when making decisions that affect faculty and academics at the college,” Karen Saginor, the former president of City College’s academic senate, told me this past July. “It’s just common sense.”

One particularly outspoken board member, Steve Ngo, was having none of it. He sighed with frustration and offered to refer the question to legal counsel—whose decision was it anyway, legally speaking?—but then challenged the faculty directly. What if the board, as the only publicly elected body, simply insisted that the policy tweak be implemented in the fall semester? he asked. The head of the English department, still standing at the podium, looked as if she’d been punched. “And what will happen to us if we don’t get it done?” she said in response, giving the board a little head waggle. “What if there are things beyond our control that happen—do we get spanked?”

There was a beat and a half, a moment of slack-jawed disbelief—did the head of the English department just use the word spanked? And then, as if on cue, the squabbling commenced yet again. Eventually, four and a half hours into what would, in total, be a six-and-a-half-hour meeting ending at nearly 1:30 a.m., the board passed a motion requiring that the faculty implement the policy by the following spring semester.

It was a compromise, but a bitter one. Some faculty members stomped out of the meeting, vowing never to come back, board members rolled their eyes, and the student representative on the board gave a speech calling shared governance “sham governance.” More than a year later, after many more stand-offs like that one, two faculty members I spoke with refused to even utter Ngo’s name, inadvertently elevating him to a kind of locally elected Lord Voldemort.

When I asked Rodrigo Santos, a former temporary member of the City College board who had witnessed a few pitched battles over the years, if he thought the meetings were efficient, he laughed out loud. “I guess you could say it’s the purest form of democracy,” he said. “It’s sort of amazing to be a part of that. But yeah, I wouldn’t say ‘efficient.’ It’s really, really hard to get anything done.”

That nightmarish scenario is, unfortunately, not uncommon at many California community colleges. According to minutes from dozens of board meetings across the state, battles just like that one sometimes occur over almost everything you can imagine—from staffing structures and sexual harassment training to whether the board is allowed to change the campus calendar without approval of the academic senate first.

Part of the problem here can be traced to the passage of the system’s first shared governance law, Assembly Bill 1725, in 1988. It required district-level boards of trustees to ensure that faculty, administrators, staff, and students are “given every reasonable consideration” in the board’s decision-making processes. As written, that law actually makes sense. Karen Saginor, the former academic president, is right: boards should be compelled to consider the opinions of faculty, administrators, staff, and students.

But here’s the problem. Two years after that first law passed, two more regulations, approved by the CCCCO rather than a new state statute, enlarged the original language of the law. Instead of requiring that boards give “every reasonable consideration” to campus interest groups, the new regulations added a legal “obligation” for the bodies “to reach mutual agreement.” The regulations also added language—quoted by the faculty members at that City College board meeting—requiring the board to “rely primarily” on the opinion of academic senates on eleven topics. The first ten topics are fairly elastic, applying to any decision that could affect academics on a campus. The eleventh is “other.”

The upshot? Nowadays, when some boards try to make a decision without an academic senate’s “mutual agreement,” or if a board cannot prove it was “relying primarily” on the academic senate (which is hard to do when the decision is contrary to what the academic senate would like), then it can be sued. In 2003, Diablo Valley College’s academic senate sued the college after the board changed the staff structure without its permission; the academic senate lost.

Ngo, that outspoken San Francisco City College board member, describes the “mutual agreement” and “rely primarily” language as a de facto veto. “If the faculty doesn’t want the board to make a decision, all they have to do is withhold their consent. And suddenly, the onus is on the board to show that it can still legally move forward,” he said. “It’s the filibuster for California community college governance.”

These blurry chains of command have resulted in two primary problems at some district boards across the state. The first is that easy decisions, like City College’s attempt to implement that new, uncontroversial policy on placement exams, either take way too long or are simply tabled at midnight and never made at all—an even worse scenario during periods of extreme budget cuts.

“After AB 1725, there was this sense at the chancellor’s office [in Sacramento] that absolutely every group under the sun had to have a seat at the table and they all had to be equally represented, and so people went back to their own districts and replicated that,” said John Didion, a vice chancellor in the Rancho Santiago district, who has been an administrator at California community colleges for more than three decades. “So suddenly you had all these people in the room and unless they were in agreement, nothing could happen. It was disastrous in a system as complex as ours—there was just a whole lot of paralysis.”

The second problem that arises from these shared governance procedures is that when everyone is responsible for decision making, no one is accountable for it. “There’s no one in charge,” said Robert Shireman, who has been involved in higher education policy in Washington, D.C., since the Bill Clinton administration. He is most recently responsible for reforming need-based student loans under Obama and now heads California Competes, a Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to higher education reform. “So instead of arguing what program should we expand on, or how do we reach out better and improve success rates, the meetings are all about who’s supposed to be making that decision and who’s not allowed to make that decision. Everyone is at each other’s throats constantly.”

William Walker, the student representative on the board for the 2012-13 academic year, told me that part of the problem is that going against the faculty on any question is a third rail. “The board is incompetent,” he said. “They can’t make any decisions. But if you say we need to change that—we need a special trustee who can force decisions through—you’re going to be labeled ‘anti-faculty’—and if you want to get elected, that’s the worst thing someone can call you.”

California Competes recently filed a lawsuit against the state of California on the grounds that those two additional regulations overreach the original intent of Assembly Bill 1725. If the judge decides to nullify the regulations, it will feel for many reformers in California like removing a mossy hairball from the shower drain: everything else will suddenly start to flow better.

But even if the problem of confused chains of command in “shared governance” gets solved, there remains the larger cause of dysfunction within the California community college system: its decentralized power structure. For nearly fifty years now, the seventy-two community college districts have been required to abide by the CCCCO’s “minimum standards” and codes, but, besides that, they’ve pretty much done as they’ve pleased. Each district comes up with its own strategic plan, and its own staff, curriculum, and faculty structures. Each maintains hundreds of its own unique policies on issues ranging from transfer requirements and prerequisites to wait lists, remediation, full-time faculty, and basic student services, and each is only as good as the leadership that makes it.

The result of this little setup is exactly what you’d expect. In places where the local leadership is good—even visionary—the colleges are quite good, too. In places where the local leadership is bad or mediocre, the colleges are truly terrible. “Some campuses have a culture of destruction and some have a culture of collaboration,” observes Utpal Goswami, who became president of the College of the Redwoods just before the school was slapped with the regional accrediting agency’s most severe sanction.

Thanks to these localized differences, there’s a huge range in quality even among similar campuses that serve basically identical student populations. Santa Barbara City College, for example, was a co-winner this year of the Aspen Prize. Meanwhile, the College of Marin, situated a few hours up Highway 101 in a comparably tony district with a similar number of Pell Grant recipients (Santa Barbara’s student population is 6 percent low income; Marin’s is 8 percent), is, using the same metrics used by the Aspen Prize, doing much more poorly. Marin grants only about eight certificates or degrees per 100 students over a three-year period—a success rate that’s barely half of Santa Barbara’s.

In theory, the high failure rates at the College of Marin would lead to demands for reform at the district level. In practice, that seldom happens. (How many Marin County residents, many of them wealthy second-homeowners, pay the slightest attention to the goings-on at the local community college?) Instead, calls for improvement run smack into institutional inertia. “It’s like folklore,” says Goswami. “Someone will say, ‘This is the way we do it,’ and so even if it doesn’t work that well, you keep doing it that way. It’s hard to break those habits.’”

This inertia helps explain why, between 2003 and 2012, 55 percent (sixty-two of 112) of California’s community colleges were sanctioned by the regional accrediting agency for various shades of mismanagement or fiscal irresponsibility, and forty of those sixty-two were sanctioned more than once—sometimes four, five, six, or seven times in a decade—while the other 45 percent were not sanctioned at all. Although these sanctions are not always reflective of student achievement, they speak to the general culture of management at the local level. There are those districts that have a culture of abiding by the accreditation committee’s demands, and those that don’t, just as there are those that have a culture of serving student needs, and those that don’t.

The only way many of these abysmally performing community colleges might be motivated to improve is if they are pressured to by the state. And, fortunately, there is a growing recognition in Sacramento about the need to act. This year, for example, the CCCCO released a new statewide strategic plan for the whole system as well as twenty-two recommendations for improvements that, if followed, could do a great deal of good. But that “if” is pretty damning. The districts, which receive money from the state regardless of how they perform, are not obligated to fulfill—and in many cases, the district- and campus-level leadership is simply not capable of fulfilling—the CCCCO’s requests or recommended best practices. One community college administrator compared CCCCO recommendations to United Nations proclamations. “They’re nice, and all,” he said. “Everyone rallies around and signs it and says they’ll abide by it, but when they don’t, no one can do anything about it.”

The same is true of state laws. In recent years, the state has passed a few good ones, requiring, for example, that all community college districts provide students with the basic resources and services they need to graduate, and that districts give priority enrollment and class picks to those students on the path to earning a credential or degree, or budgeting to a four-year university. Of course, the districts are technically required to abide by all those laws, but in reality, whether the boards are able to implement them—and with what degree of aplomb—depends to a large degree on the competency and power of the local leadership. That’s a scary thought, considering that some districts have seen their governance processes grind to a halt over questions of much, much less significance, like where the faculty parking lot should be.

What’s ultimately required, then, is a new governance structure that gives more authority to, and requires more accountability from, the state. For workable models, Californians need look no further than their own CSU and UC systems. In the case of the CSU, its chancellor and state-level board of trustees, whose members are appointed by the governor, have broad authority over the system’s curricular development, facility, and property use, as well as fiscal and human resources management. The state board also appoints both chancellor and vice chancellors of the system, as well as campus presidents, who therefore ultimately answer to the state board. Similarly, the UC Board of Regents has “full powers of organization and governance” over the whole system, and the chancellor of each campus, while powerful on a local level, is also appointed by and accountable to the regents.

Thanks at least partially to their more centralized governance, the campuses within the CSU and UC systems don’t vary nearly as dramatically in quality as the state’s community colleges. Rather, even after several years of debilitating budget cuts, California’s four-years still congregate at the upper levels of the Washington Monthly’s college rankings: seven of the eight UC campuses that we rank are in the top 100 of our national university rankings, five are in the top twenty-five, and all but one have higher graduation rates than would be predicted statistically given their student demographics. Fifteen of the CSU’s twenty-three campuses rank in the top quarter of master’s universities, and all but five are graduating students at higher rates than expected.

There’s no reason that the kind of top-down accountability that has served the state’s renowned four-year institutions couldn’t serve its two-year schools just as well. It would not only make the system more manageable but would also turn its leader, the CCCCO chancellor, into a figure of real power in Sacramento, making it easier for him or her to fight for a bigger share of state funds. (It’s no accident that the un-ignorable Janet Napolitano was recently chosen to head the UC Regents Board.)

The problems we’re talking about here aren’t minor. They’re systemic issues, deeply ingrained in the cultures of California’s community college system, and changing them won’t be easy. It will have to happen in the state legislature, buttressed by brave leaders who are not afraid of upsetting the local or statewide academic senates, the faculty unions, and even the local boards of trustees, most of whom will not be in favor of giving up their power without a fight. Change will also require that the people in power—the elite, mostly upper class—who have the least personal stake in these institutions prioritize the working class.

After all, if San Francisco City College fails, SoMa, that gritty-yet-swanky hub of innovation, will in all likelihood continue to grow richer. Rents will probably continue to skyrocket, and more and more Teslas will still need to be parallel parked. But the working-class people who’ve staked their aspirations on a credential or an associate’s degree, or on transferring to another institution to pursue an even higher rung of higher ed—the only real avenue to the middle class these days—will be trapped. If there’s a silver lining to City College failing, it’s that maybe it will draw more attention to the fact that many community colleges, not only in San Francisco, the Bay Area, or California, but in the country at large, are failing many of the working-class students who need them most.

Image credit: Steve Rhodes

Haley Sweetland Edwards

Haley Sweetland Edwards, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is deputy Washington bureau chief at TIME.