Saving City College
By Julie Pitta
As a boy, Alex Lee often tagged along with his mother to City College of San Francisco. A new arrival to the City, she enrolled in a computer course, hoping it would help her land a job. Years later, Lee became a City College student, eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
City College is many things to many people. It trains students for vocations like nursing and car repair, teaches new immigrants English, and prepares high-school graduates for four-year colleges. Programs for senior citizens and the disabled create community for those most at risk of social isolation. In its 86 years of existence, City College has educated scores of lower-income students, many from minority communities, offering them entre to the middle-class
Today, this beloved institution is in trouble. Facing a $33 million deficit – the result of years of underfunding and mismanagement – the school’s administration has issued layoff notices to 163 full-time and 447 part-time faculty, a 65% reduction in its teaching staff. If approved, City College will be forced to turn away as many as 31,000 students.
COVID-19 has been unsparing. Many have already lost their jobs and many more will join them on the unemployment line. During the Great Recession of 2008, out-of-work Californians returned to community colleges in record numbers to retrain and re-enter the workforce. A similar increase is expected post-pandemic. The administration’s cutbacks threaten to decimate City College just when San Franciscans need it most.
City College’s problems are the result of years of poor decisions by the school’s administration and board of trustees. Former Chancellor Mark Rocha, hired in 2017, cut nearly a thousand classes at the same time he proposed hefty pay raises for the school’s administrators. Rocha was fired a year ago. Yet the current administration insists on following the same misguided course. By the time he left, City College’s enrollment had plunged to 55,000 from an historical high of more than 90,000 students in 2007.
The reason for the drop is simple: Laying off educators forces the school to cut classes. Firing 65 percent of the faculty means that even more classes will be eliminated and a dramatic decline in the number of students that can attend will be the inevitable result. As students are turned away, City College’s state funding, which is based on enrollment, will also drop. It’s a downward spiral that needs to stop.
A solution is at hand. The federal government is offering colleges COVID-19 funds to relieve the pandemic’s financial. The City also has more than a billion dollars, much from the federal government, for urgent priorities.That money would allow faculty and staff to be retained. It would also ensure that vocational-training programs, critical to returning San Franciscans to work in a post-pandemic world, remain intact. Finally, it would maintain other critical programs like English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL).
That’s only part of the fix. At the same time, City College’s administration and board must prioritize long-term growth. That requires maintaining classes that appeal to a wide range of students, fixing a broken enrollment system, and abandoning ineffective outreach programs.
Those who established California’s community colleges at the turn of the last century had vision. They recognized that the state’s nascent industries needed skilled workers to fuel their growth. More importantly, they understood that an education, beyond high school, was good not only for individuals but for society.
Founded in 1935, City College was established to offer an accessible and quality education to all San Franciscans. Among the roles it served was training students for middle-skill jobs which require more than a high-school diploma, but less than a college degree. These graduates became the engine for the post-war boom. Today’s middle-skills workers include electricians, nurses and software coders, and they represent as much as a third of the nation’s workforce. Without City College, San Franciscans hoping to train for those positions face limited, and more expensive, options.
City College’s administration and board of trustees are myopically focused on cutting costs and their proposed actions undermine the school’s original mission. Under their scheme, City College will become little more than a feeder for four-year colleges, a plan that excludes the many San Franciscans that can greatly benefit from vocational and adult-education classes. These are the very people City College is intended to serve.
Alex Lee’s mother went to work for a small business. Today, Lee advises new City College students, a mix of English-language learners, adults looking to retrain, and high school graduates who will transfer to four-year colleges. Amber, a recent Chinese immigrant, is a student in the ESL program, slated for a 50% cut in classes.
“Learning English helps me talk to my daughter’s teacher,” she said. “And it has helped me find a job. I need to keep learning English.”
Meanwhile, Lee, who has been a City College guidance counselor for seven years, may lose his position. If he does, he’ll be another casualty of a short-sighted administration and board of trustees.
To learn how you can help City College, go to https://rebuildcitycollege.wordpress.com/about/
Julie Pitta is a member of the governing board of Richmond District Rising. Richmond District Rising builds electoral and political power for working-class people, people of color, and other historically oppressed communities to ensure a progressive, liberated and equitable Richmond District. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.