The fight to save City College: Push back against push-out

by Helena Worthen and Joe Berry

The fight to save City College is taking place on two levels. We’re winning one but losing the other.

In the May 6, 2015, Walkout to Save City College, 200 students walked out of classes for a march, rally and flash occupation of the administration building.
In the May 6, 2015, Walkout to Save City College, 200 students walked out of classes for a march, rally and flash occupation of the administration building.

Between the courts, the legislature and political pressure in the streets, City College has made significant advances in the struggle to retain accreditation, despite the attempts by the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to shut the college down. Many elected and appointed city and state leaders have taken action to preserve City College as an accredited, accessible, community-friendly institution that serves all of San Francisco.

“All” means everyone, from people who don’t speak English to people who are ready to transfer to universities. City College is still open, still accredited, and still continues to provide excellent education to this broad population.

But on another level, the fight to save City College has taken a terrible toll. Enrollment has dropped from 100,000 students in 2008 to 65,000 this year. This means that over one third of the college’s student body has gone missing.

The fight to save City College is taking place on two levels. We’re winning one but losing the other.

In terms of full-time equivalent students (FTES) the college has lost 15 percent of its enrollment since 2010, because so many part-time students have gone missing. Even more tragic is that the price is being paid mostly by low-income, immigrant and “minority” communities – in San Francisco, “minorities” are actually the majority – the very people who use and need the college most.

According to a report commissioned by supervisor Eric Mar, comparing City College enrollment with enrollment in nearby community colleges – Peralta and San Mateo, for example – these students are not enrolling elsewhere to continue their education. Instead, they have just dropped out of college.

Bring back missing students

Bringing these students, and others, back into the classroom is a top priority for the CCSF Diversity Coalition, an organization formed by current students, faculty and department chairs to protect the ethnic studies classes and other social justice classes. These classes form an on-campus support network for students from Asian, Pacific Island, Pilipino, African-American, Latin-American and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) communities. The Diversity Coalition also includes the Disabled Students Program (DSPS), Women’s Studies, the Veteran’s Center, the Labor and Community Studies program, the Human Sexuality program and Interdisciplinary Studies, which is the home of the new Middle Eastern Studies Program.

Lalo Gonzalez, a student in Latino Studies at City College and an organizer for the Save City College Coalition, says, “If low enrollment causes these programs to go down, it will mean no access for these already marginalized communities, no access to higher education – and more gentrification, more police violence, more poverty; all the problems that already trouble the city as a whole.”

San Franciscans have long bragged about City College as the largest community college in California and one of the oldest and largest in the U.S. We cannot let the forces of privatization and gentrification persuade potential students to drop their dreams of a college education. City College has always had faculty with an affinity for Black students and is respected as a nurturing school where Blacks can succeed.
San Franciscans have long bragged about City College as the largest community college in California and one of the oldest and largest in the U.S. We cannot let the forces of privatization and gentrification persuade potential students to drop their dreams of a college education. City College has always had faculty with an affinity for Black students and is respected as a nurturing school where Blacks can succeed.

In the long term, this is the worst possible thing that could happen. If the re-engineering of City College continues to happen by top-down changes forced from above, the college may devolve into a narrow transfer and workforce development-oriented institution, simply through cuts.

Low enrollments mean classes get cancelled, faculty get laid off, centers for student support close down, and programs that took many years to design and get approved just vanish. These passive-aggressive policies, which make their impact without requiring anyone to be accountable, are called “push-out” policies. Programs, faculty, classes and ultimately students are “pushed out” of the college.

“The crisis is not coming down evenly,” agrees Win-Mon Kyi, a founder of the Asian Student Union and an activist with the Diversity Coalition. “The push-out policies disproportionately affect immigrant and other vulnerable communities.”

The need to publicize a win: Saving Civic Center Campus

The two-level nature of the crisis is shown by what happened with the Civic Center Campus. This Tenderloin area campus, which focused on English as a Second Language (ESL) and pre-college Basic Skills classes, got wide publicity when it was suddenly closed last winter, leaving 1,650 already-enrolled students locked out of classes. Many people mistakenly believe that campus is permanently closed.

Bringing these students, and others, back into the classroom is a top priority for the CCSF Diversity Coalition, an organization formed by current students, faculty and department chairs to protect the ethnic studies classes and other social justice classes.

However, students and communities organized and fought back – and won. Students, along with community groups and the faculty union AFT 2121, organized demonstrations at two different locations: Civic Center and the Ocean Campus on Phelan Avenue. This put pressure on the college. Now the same Civic Center campus that was going to close will open in fall 2015, at a new location only a few blocks away, at 1170-1172 Market St.

But will students come back to it, after all the negative publicity? Will they understand that they can still enroll and take the same classes at the new location?

This is an example of winning to preserve the college, but losing if enrollment keeps dropping.

The numbers tell the story: Every student counts

Professor Lauren Muller, chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, provided the following figures from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) website. They break down the crisis by community:

  • 1,178 African American students went missing between 2011 and 2014. This is an enrollment drop of 27 percent, from 4,374 to 3,196.
  • 1,415 Latino students went missing between 2011 and 2014. This is a drop of 14 percent, from 9,925 to 8,510.
  • 3,067 Asian students went missing between 2009 and 2014. This is a drop of 21 percent, from 14,420 to 11,353.
  • 131 Pacific Islander students went missing between 2009 and 2013. This is a drop of 32 percent, nearly one third, from 414 to 283.
  • 1,218 Pilipino students went missing between 2009 and 2014. This is a drop of 34 percent, over one third, from 3,230 to 2,112.

These are typically students who need to live at home, use public transportation, and rely on the relatively low tuition of $46 per unit in order to find the ladders of opportunity that were so much more accessible to previous generations.

Many sensational media reports suggesting that the college is closing, or has lost accreditation, undermine the confidence of community members who have to decide if they will enroll. While they take a “wait and see” approach, enrollment drops and the college loses classes and faculty.

Ethnic Studies Programs: The product of an earlier fight

Ironically, ethnic studies programs themselves are the result of a fight. The first School of Ethnic Studies was founded at San Francisco State University as a result of the 1968-69 student strike, the longest student strike in the history of the United States. Like the fight to save City College, that strike was led by a coalition, that one called the Third World Liberation Front. While the language has changed, the parallel with the City College fight is that both were anti-racist coalitions led by students of color, supported by the faculty union, the community and various student groups.

The parallel with the City College fight is that both were anti-racist coalitions led by students of color, supported by the faculty union, the community and various student groups.

Fifty years ago, people had to organize and fight in order to get ethnic studies programs recognized as serious academic disciplines. Today, they are again under attack. In fact, this struggle is an example of the attack on them that is showing up in Arizona and elsewhere. The forced narrowing of the mission of community colleges like City College is part of the attack on all disciplines that do not produce immediate market value, especially ethnic studies.

People should know that City College courses in ethnic studies programs are for-credit social sciences transfer courses that articulate, for example, to the UC Berkeley course Ethnic Studies 21.

Community support and community need

Support for these classes still comes from the community. Professor Tarik Farrar, chair of African American Studies, says they provide a “home base” for a lot of students. “So many counselors have been laid off,” he says, “so we don’t have the support services that students used to rely on. But in these classes, they find a sense of history and community that makes it easier to survive. It gives them a sense of academic identity.”

An example of how students find a home base in ethnic studies programs that supports academic success comes from the Black Student Union and African American Studies program graduation ceremony last spring. There were 45 students who celebrated their graduation at that ceremony. Out of these 45, all except one had been accepted to transfer to four-year schools, mostly the California State University system, some to the UC system, and one was going to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. The one who was not transferring explained that he was “undecided.”

What are the “push-out” policies?

Policies that have the indirect impact of pushing students out of the college are called “push-out” policies. They may be officially intended to cut costs by, for example, laying off employees of the college, such as counselors. But without counselors, students who do not know how to navigate the complexities of going to college end up dropping out.

Policies that have the indirect impact of pushing students out of the college are called “push-out” policies.

Push-out Number One: The most bitterly resented push-out policies have to do with student debt payment. Students used to be allowed to carry a debt for tuition and continue to enroll in classes. This provided students with ample time to save enough money or find alternative means of financial assistance. The ACCJC claimed that over the years, City College had accrued between $5.2 and $7 million in debt owed by students to the college.

Other California community colleges carry student debt, but under statewide policy, colleges have the option to go after that debt in different ways. The City College administration chose the most draconian, punitive way.

“They said that this was a way to teach financial literacy,” says Gonzalez.

The most bitterly resented push-out policies have to do with student debt payment.

City College hired a third-party student debt conglomerate, Nelnet Business Solutions, to carry out this policy. If a student who owed money to the college enrolled for the next semester, that student would get robo-dropped (automatically dropped) several weeks before new financial aid checks come through – unless the student paid off the entire debt plus 20 percent of upcoming tuition by the deadline.

During the long struggle to save City College, it’s not just students protesting. Many faculty and staff members have joined them, often at their economic peril. – Photo: Lalo Gonzalez
During the long struggle to save City College, it’s not just students protesting. Many faculty and staff members have joined them, often at their economic peril. – Photo: Lalo Gonzalez

Because of this, classes that opened with 20 students (the class minimum) would fall below 20 in enrollment, meaning that the class itself would get cancelled. A domino effect then takes place: Students get dropped, classes get cancelled, the remaining students rush to re-enroll in impacted classes but find it’s too late and can’t get in.

Sometimes they can’t find any class at a time or place they can get to, because so many of these students are adult working people and parents and do not have flexible schedules. Faculty get laid off: Over 300 part time faculty have lost their jobs.

Explains Lalo Gonzalez: “The average student debt was $200. When first implemented, the payment policy affected over 19,000 students. This past semester alone, 1,400 students were dropped just days before classes began, creating uncertainty and instability in several programs.”

“The current Payment Policy is unnecessarily aggressive and illogical,” Gonzalez explains. “If enrollment and financial stability are such a priority, then the administration should keep students enrolled to ensure millions in state funding – then create an equitable alternative to the current payment plan, one based on a student’s income rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach. The payment policy should uphold City College’s values of inclusion, not exclusion.”

Push-out Number Two: Another push-out policy has to do with the Board of Governors (BOG) tuition waivers, which instituted new restrictions last year. In the past, BOG tuition waivers were simply based on need, on family income. Now they are much more complicated.

Another push-out policy has to do with the Board of Governors (BOG) tuition waivers, which instituted new restrictions last year.

These new restrictions include Grade Point Average (GPA) minimums. The paperwork has become complicated and eligibility depends on multiple factors. Many students who are eligible do not even know that they can apply, says Lauren Miller, chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.

This is evidence of the damage caused by the absence of counselors in the wake of more than 30 being laid off. Counselors know how to navigate the system and their job is to help students with these very challenges.

Spending $6 million to collect $6 million: The bitter irony is that the “push-out” policies have an inverse effect on college finances, because each student who enrolls full-time (FTES, or full-time equivalent student) brings in $4,600 in state funding. So every time a student is pushed out because they owe $280, the college loses up to $4,320, not including the money City College pays to Nelnet.

If you multiply this by the 1,400 students dropped last semester, the loss is over $6 million to the college as a whole, which runs on a budget of about $349 million. This lost money would nearly cover the total student debt of $5.2 to $6 million mentioned above.

The connection with gentrification

Win-Mon Kyi makes the connection between loss of enrollment at City College and the struggle against gentrification. She says:

“Once the resources that are helpful to community are cut and classes that communities need are cut because of push-out policies, the ways that the communities learn about their history and become empowered are also in decline. It’s a vicious cycle. Everything that weakens City College weakens the community that is resisting gentrification.”

The fight to save City College is also the fight to save San Francisco as a truly diverse city, not just a gentrified and overwhelmingly white enclave.

Headlines have been made by the Ellis Act evictions, where whole apartment buildings in which people have lived for years under rent control have been cleared out, making way for steep increases in the cost of housing. San Francisco, already known as a city of billionaires, is replacing its working class and immigrant communities with people who can afford $2,500 for a one-bedroom in the Mission District. These are not the people who will take Basic Skills, ESL, Citizenship, or Ethnic or Labor Studies classes at City College.

In the vision of San Francisco as a city of high-wage tech, marketing and finance professionals, those classes are irrelevant. Why offer classes for people who can’t afford to live in San Francisco anyway? This vision streamlines City College down to workforce development classes that will produce employees for the building trades and public services like police and firefighters, plus transfer courses that track students into the university systems, relieving pressure on impacted lower level programs.

This means that the fight to save City College is also the fight to save San Francisco as a truly diverse city, not just a gentrified and overwhelmingly white enclave.

To enroll in classes starting Aug. 17, you’ll find the credit classes at https://www.ccsf.edu/en/educational-programs/class-schedule/enrollment_made_simple.html and the non-credit classes at https://www.ccsf.edu/en/student-services/admissions-and-registration/admissions/noncredit-admission.html.

To get involved in the fight to save City College, go to www.saveccsf.org or AFT 2121 at www.aft2121.org.

Helena Worthen is a former Peralta District part-time English teacher and author of “What Did You Learn at Work Today?” from Hardball Press. Joe Berry is a former City College Labor Studies teacher, author of “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” from Monthly Review Press, editor of COCAL Updates and a member of the Executive Board of AFT 2121 (American Federation of Teachers Local 2121). Both are labor educators, retired from the University of Illinois and teaching in the trade union program fall 2015 at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In Vietnam, they can be reached at joeberry@igc.org or joetracyberry@gmail.org and through Helena’s blog at helenaworthen.wordpress.com.