Equity, Choice, and the Community College Mission

Professor of Mathematics, Mendocino College


This section of the Rostrum is dedicated to publishing the personal stories
and perspectives of individual faculty members from community colleges around the state. The statements and stories included in this section come directly from the writers and may not reflect the positions or views of the ASCCC. Although these selections must meet the ASCCC’s publication standards, they will be edited less than other Rostrum articles in order to more fully preserve the writers’ voices.

I consider myself a community college success story. I began my journey at a small, rural community college as a returning student and 37-year-old mother of two children, not unlike many of the students I have had in my classes. I had decided to attend college to seek a degree in mathematics after having positive experiences volunteering in my children’s classrooms, where I was usually assigned to the math table. Seeing the children’s faces light up when they understood a math concept in a new way got me hooked.

I was nervous when I took the first steps to enroll at my local community college. I signed up for the placement testing and did better than I thought I might after years of primarily using math in a bookkeeping capacity. I was actually excited that I could take intermediate algebra, a class I had previously had in high school more than twenty years before. Because I wanted to teach math, I did not want to miss the opportunity to understand the concepts—not just the algorithms I remembered—and I chose to enroll in elementary algebra. From there, I worked my way to transfer level math and, eventually, a degree in mathematics.

Had the mandates created by AB705 (Irwin, 2017) been in place at the time, I would have been unlikely to pursue a math degree. Even though I had a decent background in mathematics in high school, that was many years before, and I would not have had the confidence to enroll in a precalculus course even if a support course was available. I would not likely have been successful because that automatic placement would have been enough to keep me from enrolling. Some people would claim that such students would not be successful anyway, but this outlook comes from a deficit mindset that discounts the unique interests, goals, and abilities of individual students. Had the current mandates been in place when I returned to college, there would have been one less woman in STEM, one less mentor for other women pursuing STEM degrees, and one less community college success story.

When I read the community college mission statement in Education Code §66010.4, I see myself. “The California Community Colleges shall, as a primary mission, offer academic and vocational instruction… for both younger and older students, including those persons returning to school… In addition to the primary mission of academic and vocational instruction, the community colleges shall offer instruction and courses to achieve all of the following: The provision of remedial instruction for those in need of it…” This mission statement is beautiful in its inclusivity and its vision.

The introduction of AB705 in 2017, a bill that was designed to further restrict the availability of math courses that best fit a student’s goals, interests, and needs, has me feeling discouraged. To promote equity, colleges are encouraged to give students choice and agency over their own learning. At the same time, institutions are working to restrict choice and agency for their students. This solution is not equitable. Arbitrary metrics and directives that result in community colleges no longer offering classes below transfer level have a negative impact on students and communities.

I am now a tenured faculty member at the same community college where I started my journey. It is a dream come true. I am able to teach, encourage, and mentor students from diverse backgrounds who have equally diverse goals for themselves. When I think of my students who would likely to have been negatively impact by AB705, I think of Jake, who was a returning student. He had turned his life around and wanted to create a new start for himself. He completed elementary and intermediate algebra, and his degree allowed him to find a job that supports his family and includes benefits and retirement. He also benefitted from doing something he never thought he could do: algebra. Likewise, Jonathan, a young Latino, left agricultural work to attend college. He enrolled in pre-transfer math courses for a CTE certificate in sustainable technologies, fell in love with math, and is now a graduate of UC Davis and a civil engineer turning creative ideas into physical structures. Maria enrolled in elementary algebra so she could help her children with their math homework. She would study when they were in school so that she would be ready to answer their questions in the evening. Together, they built a successful learning community. Another example is a current student, living with disabilities, who has no desire to transfer but set a personal goal to get through intermediate algebra. That student successfully passed prealgebra and is thrilled to be learning elementary algebra. Sadly, the student will not reach the student’s desired goal because the college will not be offering intermediate algebra in fall 2022. Bills like AB705 and arbitrary directives that do not take into account a student’s personal goals have put this student’s dream of passing intermediate algebra just out of reach. There is no equity in that. The college is working with the student to redefine goals, but the student is feeling defeated and may not enroll in another math course.

The gathering of data for analysis, when properly done, can help colleges to make informed decisions about best practices. The trouble with big sets of data, however, is that the individual is generally lost. When institutions impose their own definitions of student success on their students—such as the assumption that all students should take transfer-level math and would benefit from it—they take away students’ choices and their agency. They place on the students the college’s definition of success and silence students’ voices in defining their own goals and paths. Colleges essentially say that students are not qualified to make these decisions about their own lives and that they need to be told what is best for them. This attitude does not promote equity.