“This is a very big deal,” said County Supervisor Salud Carbajal at a celebration of Santa Barbara City College’s award — granted by the Aspen Institute — for best community college in the nation. Carbajal was joined by a host of Santa Barbara dignitaries at the event, held on the campus’s Student Services Plaza on Tuesday afternoon. The prize comes with $400,000, major bragging rights, and validation for students, staff, and faculty. President Lori Gaskin told them, “This prize is absolutely, totally — I sound like a Valley girl — about you.”
In awarding the prize to SBCC — which tied with Walla Walla Community College in Washington state — the Aspen Institute noted overall student outcomes, high transfer rates, and equity. Almost a third of the college’s enrollees are Hispanic, and 48 percent of its Hispanic students graduate or transfer within three years as compared to a national average of 35 percent.
The poster child for this success, as SBCC applied for the award and now takes its victory lap, is Edith Rodriguez, who showed up to City College underprepared, needing remedial work, and with a checkered past. She spent her junior year of high school at El Puente after running with a gang and getting into fights. She caught up on her credits and returned to school more motivated. When City College advisor Adolfo Corral showed up at her senior assembly to recruit students for the Running Start program, something he said struck a chord with her. Running Start takes 65 financially or academically underprepared graduates from area high schools and offers them a six-week crash course in study skills, time management, and other basic tools necessary for navigating college life.
Since then, she has turned into an academic powerhouse. An aspiring electrical engineer, Rodriguez last spring participated in a robotics competition at UCLA. Over the summer, she completed research at both UCSB and UC Berkeley. This summer, she will head to Florida State University for a National Science Foundation–funded internship to study power-efficient electronics. Inspired by a grandfather with Parkinson’s disease, she would like to one day work for a medical device company. The Aspen Institute was so impressed with Rodriguez that they flew her out to Washington, D.C., for the award ceremony and asked her to introduce Second Lady Jill Biden.
“The way that I was going, I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Rodriguez said recently, chatting outside SBCC’s cafeteria on a balcony that boasts the campus’s ridiculously scenic perch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Rodriguez has benefited from what Gaskin has referred to as “wraparound services.” At one point, Rodriguez considered studying criminology because of her own past, but a counselor suggested engineering upon learning how much she enjoyed math. The counselor also pointed her toward City College’s MESA (Math Engineering Science Achievement) chapter. MESA targets underrepresented students and encourages them to complete math-based degrees. It was through this organization that Rodriquez found all her internships. In the fall, she will apply to four-year colleges with all of her lower-level coursework completed and an already-burgeoning résumé.
While Rodriguez was fortunate to benefit from a program like Running Start, which comes with the perk of priority registration, many students at City College and community colleges throughout the state cannot get into the courses they need to transfer or graduate. Half a million students in California were turned away from community colleges last year. That is why SBCC alumnus and state Assemblymember Das Williams has authored a bill with the intent of easing that bottleneck.
AB 955 would authorize community colleges to offer extension courses — that is, non-state-subsidized classes that would cost full tuition. Offered over the winter or summer, these courses would allow students to catch up on coursework and open up spots in regular classes during the academic year.
Faculty and student groups have criticized the bill for creating a two-tiered system. Gaskin said she is “concerned” about the moral hazard of allowing students to leapfrog their spot in the registration line simply because they can afford to. City College Trustee Peter Haslund — who was once Williams’s professor for a political science class — said, “He is asking the wrong people to provide the remedy,” suggesting that the state needs to uphold its commitment to higher education, and asking students to pay would be tantamount to “caving.”
Williams counters such criticism by stating that the annual average cost of living for a California community college student is $17,500, and if that student hypothetically pays around $1,000 for two extension courses but graduates on time, they still come out way ahead. “The moral failing,” he said, “is that if we don’t support a non-fiscal solution, then we are allowing the status quo to continue.”