Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A "Leader of Leaders"

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A "Leader of Leaders"

Article excerpt

California Chancellor Brice Harris Serves a Diverse and Changing Community College Population.

As Brice Harris marks his first year as chancellor of California Community Colleges, he and the system face greater opportunities than in recent years - and greater challenges, too.

Harris' first day as chancellor coincided with Election Day in November 2012. A potted plant awaited him zzin his new Sacramento office, and the closing of the polls delivered another gift: California voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary sales and income tax increase expected to raise $6 billion for schools and community colleges. For the 2012-2013 academic year, that ballot measure restored $210 million to community colleges. That allowed the system to add 3,300 courses for the spring 2013 semester and enroll an additional 40,000 students.

In a telephone interview, Harris said the vote result allowed him to set two priorities: one, to close an achievement gap consistently found in studies between Latino and African-American students and their white counterparts, and Latino and black men when compared to women.

"We have to close the performance gap ... especially for Latino and black males," Harris said.

The other, he said, was "to restore access to this system" after it had limited services to half a million students.

"We were in danger of leaving a generation behind," he said.

During the five years before the system's board of governors unanimously approved Harris for the job, the state cut $1.5 billion from community colleges, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Similar cuts caused every segment of the Golden State's public higher education system - including the University of California and California State University - to trim staff, courses, enrollment and expenditures.

The New "New"

The California Community Colleges system enrolls 2.4 million Californians across 112 campuses, making it the nation's largest public system of higher education. Its campuses represent close to 10 percent of all the community colleges in the country, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Its student body is more diverse than most - with a larger share of Latino and African-American students, military veterans and older students than the general college population. The largest age cohort, at nearly 36 percent, is 25 to 49 years old.

"Our students are now the 'traditional' students," Chancellor Harris said, noting that their goals, educational backgrounds, family lives and levels of preparation for college are very different from those of people who enter college right out of high school.

"Students today face challenges they didn't twenty and thirty years ago," Harris said.

Harris said three-fourths of students entering the California Community Colleges system need remediation in math, English or both. While many succeed and graduate, he acknowledges that many more need more support services to ensure that they can complete associate degrees or transfers to four-year colleges.

"The single most daunting challenge," Harris said, "is how to deliver remedial and basic education to the students who need it.... We just don't spend a lot of time laying blame on why students aren't prepared."

One program in the California Community Colleges, the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, is intended to reach the most educationally disadvantaged students with support services that include fee waivers and vouchers to purchase textbooks or, for distance learning, CD-ROMS. Eligible students include those who haven't graduated from high school or obtained general education diplomas (GEDs), single heads of households who receive other aid from the state and, under some circumstances, convicted felons who have served their sentences and are released.

Harris said he's convinced that even those students who "weren't successful in high school. …

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