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The New Three-Attempt Policy of the California Community Colleges: Potential Washout Students We Should Care About (Part 1)

We are more than half way through the spring semester at Pierce College where I teach basic and college-level writing and reading classes, and I am still gathering my thoughts about the impact of the new three-attempt policy passed by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges. This new policy limits community college students to three opportunities to pass a class. Withdrawals count as opportunities. Students who exceed three opportunities to pass a particular class will still have the option to repeat that class within another community college district. In the LA area, this could mean a twenty to thirty mile drive for students who are fortunate enough to have cars. Students without their own cars could of course take the bus, ask for a ride, or ride their bikes.

These students can also quit and become washouts: community college students who do not transfer, complete a program, or graduate. They just stop coming, and nobody seems to care much. Maybe the washouts do, but it’s not like many of them will be writing op-ed pieces or blog articles in which they articulate their gripes and participate in civic debate.

You might ask, if a student can’t pass a Math or English class in three attempts, is it a waste of space and tax-payer money to allow that student to repeat the class again? I find myself agreeing with people who criticize students who can’t pass a class in three tries. Whatever happened to seeking help and burning the candle at both ends?

The three-attempt policy also addresses the situation that I have encountered over the past three years at the beginning of each semester where there are twenty or more students trying to add each class that I teach. Many first-year students find it very difficult to add the core classes that they need to graduate and/or transfer. Some of these students have been delayed by a year or two in their course of study. These students are justified to feel frustrated and angry.

In pragmatic terms, a two-year delay in obtaining a degree could equate to two fewer years for an individual to be paid for a job that requires the degree and/or certificate that he/she should have already obtained. Calculate the money that could have been earned in those two years; money that could have been taxed by California, or put into an IRA, or used to buy something like a new car. Calculate the lost interest for the state or for the bank that had to wait an additional two years to make that car loan to that twenty-something, and you can start to understand the impact that college class shortages have on both individual lives and on the economy.

Hence, the Board was nearly unanimous in passing the three-attempt policy, which is hard to argue against insofar as California is broke and resources are limited.

However, I think we need to question how the Board uses our limited resources. To be more specific, the passage of the three-attempt policy points to a larger issue, namely the valuation process of the Board members. What I mean is that the appointed board members, many of whom are corporate alumni and/or have strong ties to private industry, value first and foremost in their decision making economic growth and the perceived needs of big businesses in California. In other words, the Board is engaged in pushing reforms and passing policies that get students through college and into the workforce faster so that they can contribute faster to California’s future economic growth. From this perspective, the three-attempt policy seems like a logical win-win solution for big business, students, and the economy.

In their valuation process, what the Board does not adequately account for are the many students who come to the community college for reasons that do not accord with the values and strategic vision of the Board. Some students come to community colleges for reasons other than speedy transfers to four-year colleges or quick and easy certificates that possibly qualify them for low-paying, unstable jobs that serve the interests of big business and the California economy. Some students are motivated by goals that are more humble and profound such as learning how to read and write well; intellectual development; becoming better parents and role models for their kids; and contributing what they learn to their communities.

In particular, I am deeply concerned as an educator who likes helping students become fully-literate readers, writers, and thinkers that the new three-attempt policy will create a new type of washout: the poor, socially vulnerable, minority student who comes to the community college with a sincere desire to become a literate reader and writer in American English, who works hard and struggles, and who will eventually give up due to the three-attempt policy and limited interventions. Added to this, the few interventions that are offered at Pierce and at other community colleges in the day time such as tutoring will likely also be cut in the fall. In effect, then, the three-attempt policy could possibly mean three and out with no interventions for students who need, want, and currently use them.

The new potential washouts that I’m talking about are not students who don’t work hard enough, can’t sustain their focus and effort, and don’t seek out available interventions. These are not students who are just trying to pass a class or meet a requirement for a certificate; these are not students who think that to pass all they have to do is show up and go through the motions; these are not students who will plagiarize at any given opportunity because they know it will undermine their efforts to become more literate; these are not students who think that they are fully literate and don’t need to take classes like English 101 because they can text, tweet, and read their Facebook News Feed on their smartphones.

The potential washouts that I’m talking about are oftentimes recent immigrants from Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East who work full-time jobs, and who still show up for class, office hours, tutoring, and work hard. I’m also talking about students who didn’t have a clue in high school, somehow managed to graduate or dropped out, still read and write at a sixth or seventh-grade level, and then wake up one day at twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two usually after a couple of years of working in a dead-end job; some of them are married, divorced, have kids, and/or live with family.

Call me naïve on this issue, but isn’t the community college supposed to be there to help the type of hard-working, sincere, socially vulnerable students that I’m talking about become numerate and fully literate in American English? I’m as disgusted as the next citizen with state bureaucracies that waste tax-payer money, with teachers, instructors, and professors who no longer care about students and about working on their teaching, and with unions that breed and support them. I’m also tired of students who don’t want to work hard, who don’t take advantage of tutoring, miss multiple classes, and seem to think that they can just keep repeating and repeating classes until they find an instructor who will let them pass. Nevertheless, I’m concerned that members of this culturally diverse Board will continue to collectively value economic growth and the individual needs of big businesses to the extent that they disrespect and devalue students whom they do not see as future contributors to sustainable economic growth in California.

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