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Community College Reforms May Pose Challenges for Foster Youth

October 29, 2012

SB1456, passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Brown last month, is one of the first steps towards a planned overhaul of California’s Community Colleges.  Although aspects of this shift hold promise, thoughtful implementation and a bolstering of resources for Student Success and Support Programs are essential to avoid any potential for a negative impact on foster youth.  The stated goal of the bill is to improve college success.  According to former California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, “the Student Success Act of 2012 will help our students earn degrees and certificates more quickly, improve transfer rates to four-year universities and allow us to better help students needing job training skills.” With only fifty-four percent of all community college students earning a certificate, associate degree or transferring within six years of attending a community college, there is certainly much room for improvement.  The goals of the measure are clearly laudable, but will the reality measure up to the rhetoric?

The legislation primarily tackles two issues that came from recommendations to the California Community College Board of Governors from the Student Success Task Force.  The first major provision is designed to strengthen and realign Student Success and Support Programs which include services such as orientation, assessment, counseling and the development of an academic plan.  Accompanying this provision is a requirement that students identify an academic and career goal upon application and declare a specific course of study after a period of time of enrollment. Unfortunately the measure did not include a budget allocation but instead relies on a reorientation of services and increased efficiencies, the actual impact of which is uncertain.  For foster youth, requiring an academic plan has the potential to improve outcomes, but only if Community Colleges have adequate resources to provide academic planning services in a timely manner.  Currently the average counselor to student ratio is 1900:1.  Increasing funding for core services at Community Colleges would substantially increase the likelihood that this measure will achieve its stated goals.

The second provision is to implement academic and progress standards for eligibility to obtain a waiver of tuition.  This waiver, known as the Board of Governors’ fee waiver or more familiarly by students as “The BOG,” makes college possible for thousands of current and former foster youth for whom tuition fees would likely be an insurmountable barrier.  At $46 per unit, fees for a full time student are well into the hundreds of dollars per term.  The underlying premise is that in an era of scarce resources, the BOG waivers should be prioritized for students who are progressing towards an educational goal.  The hope is that this change will also incentivize low-income students to stay on track and perform academically.

The unfortunate reality however is that because many foster youth continue to enter college unprepared academically it can take some time for a foster youth to acclimate to the college environment, complete remedial requirements, learn the necessary study skills and gain the confidence to be successful.  During this transition period, grades can suffer.  Those who work with foster youth on college campuses have expressed concern that these new standards will prove to be a barrier to foster youths’ academic success, counteracting the progress has been made in recent years to better support these youth.  It is understandable that in these lean times, the Board of Governors wants to focus resources on students who are on track towards a goal but there is the potential that foster youth and other disadvantaged students – who may require more time than traditional students to sort out their path – could be adversely affected by the changes. The legislation calls for the incorporation of provisions to ensure that the standards “do not unfairly disadvantage financially needy students” and how this manifests during implementation of the law will be key to ensuring that foster youth are not inadvertently disadvantaged.

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