By Renée Bartlett-Webber
City College has a long, complicated yet fascinating history as the only community college in San Francisco. For decades, the college has been one of the top community colleges in the state.
After its founding as a junior college in 1935, City College grew quickly and immensely. Its first year brought in 1,417 students. By the 1982-1983 academic year, it reached its peak enrollment of 140,000 students. This was during a significant recession and mass unemployment.
From the beginning, the school struggled with the state for financing to fulfill its goals. Budgetary restrictions have always posed challenges, but they were also consistently overcome due to the dedication of the employees and residents. San Franciscans voted to shift state funds to community colleges in 1988, increase sales tax to fund the city’s schools in 1992 and bond measures to improve and build facilities in 1938, 1997, 2001 and 2005.
However, the fiscal threats have continued to haunt the college. In the early 2000’s the school had to start reducing its class offerings.
In 2012, the school faced the infamous accreditation debacle. Four years later, the San Francisco Superior Court found the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) broke four laws in its illegal attempt to sanction the school. While the school rose from the ashes because of the persistence of community members, enrollment still began to decline.
As the pandemic ripped through the world, it disproportionately impacted those of lower economic standing, the same type of population City College serves. Between 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, City College’s enrollment decreased by almost 60%, according to the Chancellor’s Office Data Mart. Today, the college serves about 38,000 students. With the decrease in enrollment, the administration has rolled-back classes and approved layoffs. This can be a slippery slope because reduced classes could also mean a decrease in student enrollment.
However, there is hope. In its heyday, City College served one in nine San Francisco residents annually. The community has a deep connection to the college, which has supported the college immeasurably. Even today, as the institution faces layoffs, class cuts, lack of heat, one phrase is always consistent: “I love City College.” It’s bones are made up of faculty who have worked at the college since the 80s, students who have “the best instructor they have ever had,” and trustees and chancellors who were once students and now lead the college.
While the success of City College will inevitably come from its many community supporters, Community colleges in general are beholden to social demands locally and nationally. Their successes are dependent on the economy and political climate. Historically, recessions have increased the number of students: As unemployment rose, enrollment increased. But the changes in the economy have become even more complicated in recent years. Despite mass unemployment in the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, enrollment has continued to decline. Community Colleges across the country are reeling.
California is unique because the state has increased budgets to higher education overall, even though enrollment has not started to recover. For the first time in 25 years, City College has had a clean audit with no flags. There was also a surplus in the last fiscal year. These are very positive financial steps for the institution, but they can be attributed to cuts to employees and classes made over the last two years.
City College is at a pivotal point in its history. It will forge through its challenges, as it always has, but there are a few paths it could take. Its current trajectory does seem to be following the “success-driven” vision of the state chancellor’s office, which prioritizes degree, transfer, or certificate outcomes for full-time students, over other students.
While the state and current administration are focusing on trying to optimize student outcomes through metrics, the community is still focused on serving San Francisco’s unique and dynamic needs to help young high school graduates, business owners, lifelong learners and community advocates. The clash in prioritization between the state’s agendas and those of the city’s residents, may heighten in the coming months/years.