California's community colleges are the most egalitarian institutions of higher education in America. There are no admissions tests. A student need not even have a high school diploma to enroll. They are the premier gateway to opportunity for low-income students.
It is a point of pride in California that higher education is an entitlement, and the community colleges are the places that make it so. They are, in the words of the state's half-century-old master plan for higher education, the places that by their charters shall offer education to any student capable of benefiting from instruction.
And they have always done so by charging fees that are uniformly low.
As Santa Barbara Assemblyman Das Williams discovered this year, anyone who even tinkers with that concept opens himself to an onslaught of indignant criticism.
No one needs to tell Williams about the value of community colleges. He is, in fact, a poster child for the vision of what they were intended to be.
Williams dropped out of high school at 16, lived on the beach in his Volkswagen van and worked his way through Santa Barbara City College. Two years later, he was admitted into UC Berkeley, where he received his bachelor's degree.
This year, in the view of many, Williams blasphemed the educational master plan that he says his critics view as "an almost holy document."
This is what Williams did: He introduced Assembly Bill 955, which will allow a designated six of California's 112 community colleges to offer some selected courses during their brief summer and winter intersessions at a price four times higher than the usual fee. The classes offered would have to be in addition to the classes now offered at the regular price during the regular school year. It is a pilot program that would end in 2018 unless reauthorized.
Community college faculty members and their unions were aghast. Some administrators rebelled. Many of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature excoriated the idea, some warning that it would create a "two-tiered" system of higher education at community colleges.
Nearly half of Democrats in the Legislature voted against it. But when it got to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, he signed it, describing the idea as "a reasonable experiment."
Williams is to first to admit that the program offers "an imperfect solution" to a situation in which hundreds of thousands of students, in the wake of budget cuts imposed during the recession, are unable to get into required classes they need before being able to transfer to a four-year university.
"If we had another $1.2 billion, we could probably solve it," he says. "But we don't."
His idea may be imperfect, he says, but "the status quo is worse. Turning away kids is worse."
The shortage of class offerings, he says, is forcing students to prolong their time in community college or enroll instead in more costly, for-profit colleges.
Citing today's estimated living expenses, Williams believes his idea could save some students a significant amount of money. "If students are taking longer than two years, they're adding $9,000 to $17,500 per year to the cost of their education," he said.
One college, Long Beach, will begin offering some higher-priced classes this winter. Two others, College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita and Solano College in Fairfield, plan to offer some either in the coming summer or next winter. Williams remains hopeful that administrators at Oxnard College, another of the half-dozen authorized to conduct the pilot project, will reconsider their opposition.
Meanwhile, Williams, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, has emerged somewhat bruised from the process of passing this bill.
"I knew it was going to be very controversial," he says, "but I naively thought that people might be willing to look at the various options to improve access."
Policy disagreements are one thing. Overblown rhetoric is another.
Williams notes that some critics have castigated his modest proposal as an exercise in educational "apartheid."
During his time at Berkeley, Williams took a semester off to go to South Africa to observe that country's first multiracial election. "I saw the aftermath of apartheid firsthand," he says. "These people have no idea what they're talking about."
By the time this pilot program ends in 2018, Williams said it is his hope that state funding for higher education will have rebounded to the point where sufficient regular classes have been restored to meet student demand.
"That would be my hope," he said. "But we cannot only plan for what my hope is."