DESCRIPTIVE BACKGROUND AND DEMOGRAPHICS
Twenty-two miles north by northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on the edge of the city limits, abutting the Los Angeles National Forest, is Los Angeles Mission College. Established in 1975 to fill an educational void in this part of the city, its first classes were offered in storefront buildings with an inaugural class of 1,228 students. Despite these humbling beginnings, the college endured temporary and varying locations for sixteen years, finally securing in 1991 a new, permanent campus in Sylmar, one of dozens of communities in Los Angeles. Today, the student body enrollments vary from 5,400 to 7,000, crowding the new campus that is yet in only the first phase of development. Fortunately, the state has respected our growth and our need by partially funding a new library and learning resources building, to be completed in 1996.
Mission College is one of nine community colleges that compose the Los Angeles Community College District which has a service area of 882 square miles, a population of 4.8 million, a student population of 115,389, a chancellor, and a board of trustees. The district affirms the principle that anyone capable of benefiting from higher education should have the opportunity to be educated. Affirmations notwithstanding, for several years now the district has been unable to ensure funding adequate to student needs: enrollment limits have been reduced; classes have been cut; retiring full-time instructors are all too frequently replaced by part-time; and individual colleges have become increasingly dependent upon outside funding in order to improve programs and meet the changing challenges of their communities.
The official mission statement of the college pledges a commitment to serve adults of all ages who can profit from instruction and to provide open access to programs in transfer, occupational, general, transitional, and continuing education. It also offers a broad range of Community Extension courses. This commitment, of course, assumes a responsibility to assist students in attaining their educational goals, a responsibility encumbered by two phenomenal changes within the community and the state.
The first unexpected change was the population growth and changing ethnicity within the college service area. Forty-four percent more people now live in the college service area than were here ten years ago, pushing the local population to 400,000, and making this the fastest growing area in Los Angeles. This sudden increase surpassed all projections of local and state agencies. Their low projections for this area, in fact, were a primary reason for not funding the college sooner than it was; they simply were not convinced of the need.
Accompanying the population increase was an unusual shift in ethnic distribution. Between 1980 and 1990:
Hispanic population increased over 100%
Asians increased over 144%
Non-Anglos increased from 45% of the total to 65%
Anglos decreased by 20%
Hispanics represent over 56.5% of the total
These changes exacerbated the economic conditions that previously were considered depressed. Unemployment and underemployment rates in predominantly African-American and Hispanic/Latino communities are generally higher than prevailing state and national norms. At best, the unemployment rate is consistently 2.5 percent higher than in Los Angeles County. The income level is also lower than the county median. Many residents are working class and immigrants. In real estate, houses of comparable construction are valued 25- to 30% lower than in neighboring communities.
The economic depression of the area is matched only by the one in education. The majority of Mission College's feeder high schools are predominantly Hispanic. Sylmar High School sends the fewest seniors to college in the entire City of Los Angeles, a mere 25%. San Fernando High, which borders Sylmar, has a 95% minority enrollment and a dropout rate of over 60%. For even the students who do graduate from high school, there are few if any college-educated, role models within the family, which typically is large, poor, and uneducated. After running upon hard times in the employment market, many of these high school dropouts turn to college as a last chance.
Thus, a significant number of students at Mission College are first generation college students, and not surprisingly, the odds of their succeeding are against them. The Achievement Council, a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing academic achievement among minority and low-income students in California, has published a research report, Unfinished Business, clearly showing the academic underpreparedness of the kind of students entering Mission College. The following are salient excepts from that report:
Black and Latino seniors have skill levels comparable to White students entering grade 9
The attrition rate for Blacks and Latinos at schools with large minority enrollments is nearly 70%
Latinos and Blacks are less than half as likely as Anglos to be enrolled in advanced math and physics courses
Latinos in California scored 79 points below Anglos on the Verbal SAT and 80 points below in the Math SAT
Here at Mission, for every ten, first-time students enrolled in credit courses in the fall, fewer than six persist into the spring semester. For ethnic minority students, these dropout statistics are a consequence of inadequate preparation for college and of, most especially, language barriers. Consider that in fall 1991, of first-time entering students, only
7% scored high enough on the English placement test to enroll in college- level composition
1% scored high enough to be placed into the highest level ESL course
9% scored at college-level reading ability
Fortunately, the traditional, developmental courses that Mission has offered from its founding help many of these students to rise above their entry-level skills. Mission is doing better than most community colleges in California in transitioning noncredit students from ESL and Amnesty courses to credit enrollment; and yet many do not persist. Even fewer achieve their stated goals. The percentage of ethnic minority students earning degrees and certificates has not grown commensurably with the enrollment growth of these students. Their need to clarify goals, make educational plans, and succeed is one that Mission College wants to address more aggressively.
Other characteristics of our student population present challenges of a different sort. The profile of Mission College students reflects very closely that of the community with all its diversity in ethnicity, socioeconomic levels, and educational expectations. In brief, the students are nontraditional:
70% are part-time
85% are over 21 years of age; 67%, over 25
45% attend only in the evening
66% are female; many are older than average, are homemakers, and divorcees in want of job-related training and specialized courses
Providing responsive, educational services in such a rapidly changing area would challenge even a well-established and well-funded institution.
The other phenomenal change that has affected our commitment was the voter rebellion in 1978, Proposition 13, which eliminated funding from local property taxes and placed this responsibility into the hands of the state legislature. Since then, funding for all California community colleges has been erratic and unpredictable and has been worse for an emerging institution such as Mission. Indeed, for the first time in the history of the state, tuition has been imposed on community college students, who generally are from that portion of the community that is least able to pay. Consequently, scholarships and other special funding have become increasingly important for our students. While our student population was increasing at one of the highest rates in the state, the legislature put a cap on funding increased enrollment; while the college needs more developmental courses for underprepared students, the state mandates transfer curriculum.
The shift in funding resulted, of course, in a shift of control. Mission College, as do all other California community colleges, operates under the governance of a state chancellor, a state board appointed by the governor, with its own district chancellor and board in between. The state chancellor and board oversee the distribution of funds apportioned by the state legislature and they lobby the legislature on behalf of the community colleges. Although most curricular and program decisions are made at the district level, some important regulations are set by the legislature and also the state board and chancellor's office.
Unlike the changes of the past decade that took most by surprise, those of the decade to come are ineluctably outlined. The extraordinary population increase is expected to continue because this part of Los Angeles still has a lower population and housing density per acre than anywhere else in the city, 6.7 and 2.1 respectively. These factors in conjunction with the relatively low real estate values will promote even more expansion, and that expansion will be made by those from the lower economic and educational levels, those most in need of special educational programs.
State funding is not likely to provide additional funds to colleges simply because they are serving students with special needs, and the growing percentage of nontraditional, disadvantaged students at Mission has such needs. The unpredictability of funding is exemplified by the state's granting the colleges a cost-of-living increase in its budget and rescinding it at funding time.
In brief, the crisis in American education has not passed over Los Angeles, but the faculty and staff at Mission College are determined to prevail. From the beginning, this college has been unique. It was staffed by young instructors from other campuses who were selected by their colleagues to take on the challenges of starting a new college. In an attempt to promote social and intellectual exchange across the disciplines, the college organized itself into three clusters, rather than by departments.
During the past few years, the college has developed several remarkable programs to assist students. The Project for Adult College Education (PACE) allows working students to attend at night, by video, and on weekends and still earn a degree in two years. Ours is the largest such program in California. The Amnesty program was the largest in Los Angeles, serving over 4,000 students a year. Steadily growing is the Greater Avenues for Independent Living program (GAIN). Through a number of JTPA grants, a broad noncredit, vocational curriculum was developed, offering bilingual classes in a variety of areas.
Most recently, the college has secured a $2.5 million Title III grant to improve assessment, tracking, mentoring, instruction, and curriculum development. Such funds of course are categorically bound to develop and test, not to implement.
If Mission College is to fulfill its official commitment, it must find assistance to broaden and improve its programs in reading, ESL, basic English and math, and in bilingual education and training. Developing these programs will move Mission College into an expansive future.