Less than a decade ago, California's community college system was the envy of all others, with more than 1 million students who went to 106 colleges tuition free.
By 1982, half of all adult Californians had enrolled in a community college at some time during their lives, seemingly illustrating the goal of all community colleges -- to educate the masses cheaply.
But the luster of California's model system is fading. Educators cite two fundamental reasons for the revolution on the state's community college campuses: The growing numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Asians in the state have changed the makeup, and thus the needs, of the system's student population. And the passage in 1978 of a controversial property tax ceiling measure known as Proposition 13 has strapped localities, which once provided 80 percent of the funds for community colleges.
For the first time, California last year began charging $100 for annual tuition as a way to offset shrinking contributions from localities.
The delicate question facing California is how to finance a system that provides access for increasing numbers of students who college administrators say need remedial courses or whose native language is not English. Today, about 90 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in colleges and universities in California are in community colleges, according to state officials. Overall, the system's enrollment is 37 percent minority, and more than 70 percent of the students attend part time.
As part of a statewide review of all higher education in California, a special commission is preparing to make recommendations in February that would bring some significant changes to the $1.6 billion system.
Among the most controversial items considered by the panel was a proposal to establish, for the first time, admissions requirements at community colleges, which up until now have been strictly "open door."
"The policy of open admissions raised questions about whether community colleges were 'open door' or 'revolving door,' " said Lee R. Kerschner, executive director of the panel. "This is almost the most overriding and critical issue."
Kerschner said the commission will recommend retaining the open admissions policy but will require students to have a minimum level of academic skills for entrance into specific courses.
The commission also is taking a hard line on remedial education, which, with English as a second language, is the fastest growing segment of the community college curriculum. If the commission's recommendations are adopted, students who have not mastered basic academic skills after 30 hours of remedial courses will no longer be allowed to enroll, Kerschner said.
Finally, the commission is expected to recommend that the colleges continue to emphasize programs for students who want to transfer to four-year universities as part of the cornerstone of community college mission.