When I moved to California, I started back to college. I had dropped out years before during Finals Week of my freshman semester and run off to New York, thinking I’d be an actress. I had picked up two classes at community college in Illinois when I returned 12 years later, but still had not completed my freshman year. In California I found myself a 33 year-old single mother with no child support and limited labor market skills. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but had to do something to survive.

So I worked as a cocktail waitress in the Officers’ Club at a Marine Corps base (the only job I could get without California references or job experience) and did some folk singing. Eventually, I also got a part time job on base in the Equal Employment Office as the Federal Women’s Program Coordinator. It was a strange juxtaposition. By day I would be checking the officers and training them in issues of discrimination, and in the evening I would be serving them drinks and hoping for tips.

School or marriage to an officer seemed the only ways out. I choose school.

Fortunately, California community college was only $5 a credit, or $15 a class. I was able to work and go to school at the same time until I got to the point where I was offered a scholarship from the American Association of University Women to transfer to a four-year institution and go to school full time. I went on to get a PhD and teach for 26 years.
So when I saw in the newspaper a plan to begin to rethink the pricing of community college in California, I was disturbed. I still am.

Here in California we have had several years of budget problems resulting in a loss of $809 million in funding to the state’s community colleges. Schools have been forced to turn away 200,000 students, reduce the number of classes they can offer and lay off faculty. That means more young people are being denied a college education and those who are accepted now have difficulty getting the classes they need to graduate with an AA degree or transfer to a four-year school.

According to the Press Telegram, Santa Monica College, one of the state’s largest community colleges with an enrollment of 35,000 students, has slashed 1,100 classes. If you estimate about 40 students in a class, that would be 44,000 classroom seats eliminated!

Now the school has come up with a plan to provide more of the classes required for graduation. They are establishing a separate nonprofit foundation to offer extra sections of core classes. That is intended to get around the State Education Code. This summer, the school’s foundation will offer some of these extra required courses for $600 – – courses that usually cost $108!

I’m not blaming the school. It is struggling to provide an education without adequate funding. But in doing so, it is rationing education, and that is not what the community college system was designed to do. Having an education is not a luxury in today’s economy, it is a necessity. Unless we, as taxpayers, understand that and choose to support education, the American Dream will be reduced to wisps we can’t quite remember when we wake to face the ugly world we are creating.