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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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Irons earned his associate's degree in paralegal studies from City College in 2013, at the age of 64. His degree could help him get a job, but he decided to further his education at San Francisco State University, which he transferred to.

But here is where Bergeron's critique of accreditors rears its head: Irons' graduation did not count in the ultimate tabulation of City College's accreditation. Neither did the touch of humanity Irons reclaimed.

And the Second Chance program itself? If City College were to shutter, it would have to find other schools for two-year students to finish their degrees, but has no special carve-out to continue the Second Chance program elsewhere. In fact, the college's closure report makes no mention of many specialized social safety-net programs — ones that give jobs to immigrant students, or offer classes (and care) to veterans, foster youth, or the homeless.

The accreditors' standards, critics say, are just that: standard. The yardsticks they use measure some value of California's 112 community colleges, but City College long ago diverged from its sister schools.

This makes City College's potential closure particularly more fraught than the closure of another community college system. The city would essentially lose two schools in one swoop: a university-transfer school, and a vocational one with a social mission.

Other community colleges in the area may absorb some of the credit students should City College close, though studies by the state show the schools do not have nearly the capacity to handle all of the students. And those surrounding colleges, Laney, Skyline, or Marin, are far-flung journeys for those who take public transportation.

Ivy Gao, for instance, could not attend college elsewhere: She is not yet a citizen, and has no driver's license. To keep in close proximity to her children, the area around Chinatown is her geographical boundary, for now.

The only other community college that shuttered in recent California history serves as a cautionary tale. When Compton College closed in 2005, the state found thousands of students dropped out of the higher education system entirely. Gone, vanished. When and if they ever went to school again, no one can say.

And as for City College's noncredit students, their only local refuge lay in private for-profit colleges. Entire screeds and lawsuits have been devoted to the questionable value of some of these schools' degrees, but Hittelman puts it succinctly: "Well, if students want huge loans with no reward, sure. That's what you see with these for-profits. Students end up with nothing."

In the commission's closing arguments to Judge Karnow, its attorneys pushed back on the argument that City College is unlike other colleges statewide.

"Over the past year," they wrote in closing trial briefs, "the San Francisco City Attorney has argued City College is not just like other community colleges, and City College should not have to abide by the [same] rules they do."

The City Attorneys, in turn, focused on the misdeeds of the commission — alleged conflicts of interest between the president, Barbara Beno, and her husband, in evaluating City College — and rebutted claims that the school was out of compliance with financial standards.

In these arguments, the commission wrote, "the City Attorney has utterly failed to prove its case."

The City Attorney's Office, not unexpectedly, disagrees.

"All the people seek in this relief is a fair shake for City College," the City Attorney's Office wrote in its closing trial brief. "In the absence of that relief, City College could wind up shuttered — hundreds of thousands of current and prospective students could be denied their only realistic higher education opportunity."

The decision rests now with Judge Karnow. In the meantime, the students of City College, and the people of San Francisco, wait.


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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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