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Mission Improbable: City College May Soon Close. And If It Doesn't, It May Never Be the Same. 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014
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The day is Dec. 5. Just moments before Bergeron picked up the phone to speak to SF Weekly, he and hundreds of education leaders attended a White House summit on higher education. He sat 20 feet from President Obama, who addressed the crowd.

"We're going to have to make sure that more students can make it all the way across the graduation stage, not with debt that might limit their choices, but with the skills that will prepare them for the workforce," the president said. "That is going to be critical."

But that progress has a barrier, Bergeron says, leading to "high tension" among education leaders.

That barrier is exemplified in the disconnect between what accreditors measure and what makes a school valuable. City College's finances, curriculum standards, and the number of administrators were all out of whack, the commission said. But accreditors do not generally look at what students get out of college, what experts call student outcomes: their graduation rates, job placement, loan debts, and the speed at which graduates repay that debt.

The danger of this disconnect shows up with for-profit colleges. Most (but not all) for-profits are known nationally to have sub-par job placement rates, and to saddle their students with debt. But accreditors rate them highly, mostly, because for-profits pay the bills on time, and keep the lights on.

Much of City College's main campus, by contrast, is aging and decrepit. It's finances are all over the place. But its students succeed.

To Bergeron, the accreditors behave like a perverse FDA: rating food based on how efficiently it is packaged, but not on how healthy it is to eat. Incorporating graduation rates into accreditation would be a start, he says, but so would job-placement rates.

This can be difficult to measure in community colleges, Bergeron says, because they are "open access." If a person takes one Photoshop class, and with those skills earns a promotion in his advertising firm, how could a college possibly know that? The way the numbers are counted now, that student, by not taking classes next semester, would be considered a dropout. City College would never know he was given a promotion at work.

Accreditors don't focus on results, Bergeron says, "because they're hard to measure." Many of City College's best efforts fall into this category: good for students, but hard to quantify.

Ivy Gao holds her swollen belly with one hand and her energetic son Sampson with the other. He's 3 years old and grabs at anything set down in front of him while smiling maniacally. The rambunctious brother and his yet-to-be-born sister have something in common, already: They both need health care.

And that's not cheap to come by.

"My husband is the only breadwinner," Gao, 39, says in Cantonese. A staffer at the Chinese Progressive Association translates for us, as the sounds of students singing Cantonesekaraoke in the next room drift in. "His father," she says as she pats Sampson's head, "works at a restaurant."

Despite his efforts, the family's health care premiums are high, and they need another income. So Gao enrolled in City College's Hospitality Vocational Training Program. There the students, mostly new immigrants, spend seven months studying workplace English, practice mock interviews, and learn how to apply for jobs. They visit San Francisco hotels and learn about workers' rights.

The career is a gateway to affordable health care.

"We live in an SRO [in Chinatown]," she says, referring to a Single Room Occupancy hotel. "Working in a hotel is a dream job for a lot of people."

City College's glimmering new high-rise, the Chinatown campus, is a short walk from her home. College data shows more than 15,000 Asian students are enrolled in its noncredit division, composed of mostly English-as-Second-Language, citizenship-test training, and vocational courses.

These classes help new immigrants learn English and have a chance at working-class life in San Francisco. Education helps newcomers help themselves, and rely less on government aid to live, as well.

But City College is now becoming a less open place for the Ivys of San Francisco.

"The accreditation attack has changed [City College's] policies," Emily Lee, a lead organizer at the CPA says. "And it impacts low-income students the most."

While poor students are affected the most by the changes in City College's policies, all students are impacted.

After the ACCJC found the college's finances in "disarray," City College shuttered instructional sites citywide (mini campuses which directly serve tight-knit San Francisco communities), and may soon close campuses serving the Bayview, Fort Mason, the Tenderloin, and downtown.

City College also began more strictly collecting its overdue fees. Students with an unpaid bill can no longer register for new classes. Lee says this practice disenfranchises the poor.

The college also cut classes this semester in the name of savings, writes Frederick Teti, Academic Senate president at City College, in an email to SF Weekly. Cutting course offerings drives away students (and the funding they provide) in the long term, he says. The college had more than 100,000 students enrolled in the late 2000s, a number that has since shrunk to 75,000.

"Administration was quite merciless," Teti writes: Students fresh out of high school are seeing the classes they need cut even as classes older adults tend to take are also cut.

And most telling, the college's Mission Statement, a document that determines its spending priorities, was changed at the behest of the commission's sanctions to omit life-long learners (read: old people).

The Mission Statement is also akin to a Bill of Rights for a community college, a document that speaks to its values.

Some City College supporters don't see the changes as minimizing the school's mission. "[People] assume this narrative is about something more romantic than it really is," says Steve Ngo, a long-time City College trustee. "[Class cuts] are not about substantial change," he says, "but asking us to maximize our talent to serve our students."


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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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