California's 109 community colleges -- the world's largest college system with 2.6 million students per year -- has fallen far short of its carefully planned purposes. Money, faltering high schools, a hugely varied student population and a changing job market have undercut success. The Times is examining the problems and solutions in a four-day series.
See the complete series at ContraCostaTimes.com, including stories and video. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, participate in a live question-and-answer session with community-college experts.
By Matt Krupnick
PLEASANT HILL -- It's the second week of school, and Phil Farmer's pre-algebra class at Diablo Valley College already has empty seats.
His roll call brings silence after several names. Call it a result of the January rain, or even of the agonizing early semester parking space hunt, but definitely call it a problem.
Statistically, it's safe to say that only 30 percent to 40 percent of Farmer's students will advance to basic algebra.
Community colleges nationwide labor under the weight of ill-prepared students. Some colleges estimate that nearly every student is unprepared in math, reading or writing -- or all three.
Consider the sheer magnitude of California's problem:
The implications for society at-large are startling. A 2007 study by the Educational Testing Service determined that reading, writing and math deficiencies are increasing the gap between rich and poor, creating a new class of Americans who can't compete in today's economy.
Some schools have found solutions that work, but they're difficult to replicate because of colleges' budget problems and faculty members who resist change. It's a matter of schools accepting a new remedial mission, and acceptance is rare.
California's college system recently launched the Basic Skills Initiative, its first widespread examination of student shortcomings. But the task ahead is monumental, and educators say they would be happy just to see minor improvements.
Throughout California, community colleges have so many unprepared students that remedial courses routinely run out of space, causing many students to drop out. Part of the problem is the colleges' open-access rule; anyone can attend a community college, even if they didn't finish high school.
Between 2001 and 2005, Diablo Valley College's remedial enrollment grew by 28 percent overall, and it nearly doubled for African-American students. At the same time, overall enrollment at Contra Costa's three community colleges declined by 10 percent.
Farmer, who has taught in community colleges for nearly 40 years, has seen a distinct decline in math skills among his students. Word problems have become a particular weak spot for students, he said.
"That's the big stumbling block for them," said Farmer, whose shock of white hair and spectacles make him look like the quintessential math professor. "I could say, 'Tom's age is the same as Jane's age. Jane is 37. How old is Tom?' You'd be amazed how many blank stares I get."
One college's solution
At Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, a handful of teachers and administrators realized in 1999 that the problem was overwhelming the school, which is in a middle-class suburb about 45 miles east of Los Angeles.
Using a broader definition of underpreparedness than most schools, Chaffey educators determined that 98 percent of their students were unprepared for college work in at least one basic area.
The realization led to the most radical transformation of a community college in the nation. The school began hiring more basic-skills instructors, sometimes delaying the hiring of professors in fields such as biology and sociology.
"When we talk about the motivation for this, I can describe it in one word," said Laura Hope, an English professor who helped prompt the Chaffey changes. "It was despair.
"The students put their trust in us, and we weren't delivering," she said. "We needed to look at who we were, not who we thought we were (or) who we wanted to be."
That hard look was tougher to accomplish than it may seem. College professors want to teach college-level courses, whether they're at a two-year school or a four-year school.
But there's no arguing with Chaffey's results. Although fewer than 8 percent of the school's students were transferring to four-year schools before the transformation, that figure has steadily risen to about 25 percent.
"Revolution is not painless," Hope said. "But in the end, if you're doing it for the right reasons, it can pay off."
Faculty members "realize that remediation is seen by many of their colleagues as second-class work," noted a document on remediation presented to the state's community college trustees this month. "Many campuses are, in fact, hesitant to be seen as 'the place for remediation.'"
The problem goes beyond community colleges, as universities also have been forced to deal with the failings of the K-12 school system. At Cal State East Bay, for example, 70 percent of this year's freshman class needed English remediation, 64 percent needed math remediation and 54 percent needed work in both areas.
More than a third of UC Davis students need help in English, most because they're new to the United States.
The shortcomings are unlikely to improve in the near future. Only slightly more than a third of California's 11th-graders were proficient in English last year. That ratio dropped to one in five for African-American students.
As illustrated by Farmer's quickly eroding pre-algebra class, it can be hard to keep remedial students interested. Remedial professors must spend more energy than ever keeping students interested in subjects in which they've never been interested.
In general, about half the students in a remedial course will drop out before a term ends.
"You get somebody who has a little self-doubt, and they're not going to put much effort into it," said Bill Fracisco, a counselor at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg. "Once a student becomes focused, they're more likely to stay. If they're just floundering around out there, they're not going to stick around."
Chaffey College spends about $3.5 million per year on "success centers," where students are monitored closely to help keep their studies on track. About half the money returns to the school, because with the extra help, fewer students drop out, which adds enrollment funding for the college, Hope said.
More schools are requiring remedial teaching from their full-time instructors, who can be tough to attract to those classes. Historically, many community colleges left the lower-level classes to part-time teachers, who often didn't hold office hours to meet with students, many in danger of dropping out.
On a recent morning, one of Chaffey's success centers buzzed as students worked on computers and sought tutoring from their peers. In many cases, students were learning what they should have been taught in high school.
In one room, Chaffey alumnus Brian Sherman explained study skills to a group of five students.
"I never used counselors much," said Sherman, an English instructor at nearby Cal State San Bernardino who dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and struggled at Chaffey before finding his stride.
"But your teachers' offices," he told the students, "that's a completely different thing. Your teachers have the key to the whole class. That's your chance to ask those questions you're too embarrassed to ask in class."
The school's approach has caught on with students, who said teachers seem well-equipped to handle the task, and the success centers provide them with the tools they need.
Before using the success center, "there were some times I would go to class and be totally confused," said Cherrish McCrae, a 24-year-old mother of two who is working toward an accounting degree.
"In a lot of high school classes," she said, "you could get by without ever reading the book."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or email@example.com.