The collapse of enrollment in California community colleges has been a long time coming, but it is no surprise.
There are some common denominators on why community colleges are running into a wall. Take a look at some of the reasons why we see more students dropping out now:
- They often lack the practical life skills needed for personal maintenance. Personal needs can overwhelm the best intentions.
- Students are less likely to have lived independently and lack the management skills to do so.
- Significant numbers of systemically discriminated, marginalized students are in community colleges and have less ability to navigate the complex social systems of housing, finance, food, education, transportation, technology and social connection.
- Lack of child care. Single mothers are among the most impoverished cohort of struggling students.
- Community college students typically engage in less long-term life planning and are more tempted by short-term rewards, like current higher wage rates, than the distant rewards of a degree.
- Today, they have less family support, and poorer physical and mental health.
Ask yourself, how come all this was not a problem before 1980? Because home was different.
We are now in the second generation of those who have never experienced a well-managed home or access to instruction on how it happens. Many have survived via the military, incarceration or have been overly-helicoptered, relieved of personal solvency and maintenance. They may be immigrants unfamiliar with U.S. social systems — in other words, many do not know how to live and go to school or work at the same time.
One big reason: Traditional home economics classes, which included financial management, were required for women in high schools and were offered in many community colleges, but discontinued in the 1980s — often for a good reason — to encourage women for professional roles.
Before then, women were the source of traditional home and child maintenance. Now, that does not automatically happen. Schools did not teach men the science, child development or consumer savvy needed to meet basic family needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow made fulfilling those needs the first thing in his Hierarchy of Needs for a reason, because those needs are the highest priority for all people.
Another reason for dropping enrollment: Since the 1980s, the complexity of U.S. survival systems has grown to exceed the bandwidth and cognitive load of even those with graduate degrees, let alone that of a young, immature or disadvantaged person. From poor foods and nutrition to medical bankruptcy, the penalties for not understanding physical health are now pretty direct and costly.
Avoiding that fate requires expertise and constant vigilance of the food and medical industries. Even the advantaged now wind up spiraling downward in this fragile society while just trying to live and show up on time. To retire fear-free requires lifetime direct instruction, constantly updated.
And here’s another reason: Community colleges have steered away from one of their fundamental missions, developing human capacity, and toward appeasing employers and utility-based economists who see workers as units.
Community colleges have become the taxpayer-funded, outsourced training grounds for many employers, some of which only speculate on what jobs might be there, causing more people to retrain repeatedly. Because community colleges are the start of adult life after leaving home, at 18 or on the second try, they should serve both employers and workers for the long, not short, term. Community colleges must educate students to be productive in all human environments — personal, professional, social, civic and natural — to be the best employees.
The one-stop solution is to mandate core Human Ecology education (contemporary, gender-neutral “Home Economics Plus”). Make it a requirement to graduate.
Human Ecology is personal failure insurance in an educational package. It is as valuable to success as math, English or science. There is no other entity in U.S. society, aside from community colleges, that can provide this education on the scale required.
Sandra Ericson chaired the Consumer Arts and Science Department at City College of San Francisco for 28 years. She served 12 years, three elected terms, on the Napa Valley College Board.