Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Virtually every one of the 2.4 million students who attend one of California's 112 community colleges takes at least one course in History. Title 5 Section 40404 of the Education Code requires that students graduating from the California State University system, the major receiving institution for community college transfers, demonstrate competency in "the historical development of American institutions and ideals, the Constitution of the United States and the operation of representative democratic government under the Constitution, and the process of California state and local government."1 Although there are a variety of courses that satisfy the “American Institutions” requirement, most students take the two U.S. surveys, or at least one of them in conjunction with a course in political science or ethnic studies. The two-course sequences in world history and Western Civilization are highly subscribed as well. In addition to these basic courses, many history programs offer a wide array of lower-division courses. In a survey of 20 California two-year colleges, I found programs offering between 10 and 40 courses: the average number was 24. The last 20 years or so have been generally favorable for the California community colleges’ history programs: enrollments have been solid, the curriculum has expanded, and a post-1988 hiring wave brought a cadre of well-trained, experienced faculty into the system. In addition, the professional status of our faculty has benefitted from the fact that organizations like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians have focused significant attention on the teaching of history in the community colleges.2

The Great Recession, however, delivered a staggering blow to the California community colleges, from which we have yet to recover. We have suffered budget cuts of more than $809 million dollars in just the last three years. Tenure-track hiring has been frozen by some institutions, student services have been reduced, and so many classes have been cut that this fall, more than 472,000 students were unable to enroll in the classes they needed. It does not appear that history classes have been disproportionately affected by the reductions; but their offerings are certainly fewer than was the case three years ago. Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. In an attempt to at least prevent the collapse of public education in California, Governor Jerry Brown has placed a revenue-producing initiative on the November ballot. Proposition 30 increases personal income tax by 1 percent to 3 percent on individuals earning more than $250,000 annually for a period of seven years, and increases the state's sales tax by ¼ cent for four years. If the measure passes, approximately $210 million dollars will be added to community college base funding for 2012–13. If the measure fails, budget reductions will total nearly $549 million dollars for 2012–13.

The current budget crisis has tipped the ratio of full-time to part-time instructors in an even more unfavorable direction. Adjunct instructors now comprise more than 70 percent of the faculty at California's two-year public colleges. Moreover, tenured faculty are getting older and many are retiring, while hiring freezes prohibit their immediate replacement with new tenure-track professors. Most adjuncts are dedicated teachers and scholars; nevertheless, they are often unavailable to students beyond instructional hours, and, most critically, they generally are not able to participate in the kinds of service activities that are consuming more and more of the time of our tenured colleagues.

After 1978, the funding source for most of California's community colleges shifted from local property taxes to state general funds. This shift has enabled the state legislature and governor to become much more active shapers of higher education than is the case in perhaps any other state. On September 29, 2010, the governor signed the Student Transfer Agreement Reform Act (SB 1440). The bill was intended to facilitate a seamless transfer from community colleges to the California State University (CSU) system. Community colleges are required to create associate degrees for transfer, and CSU institutions are expected to accept those holding such degrees into their upper-division programs. The associate degree can have only 60 transferable (semester) units; CSU campuses may not require students to repeat courses similar to those taken for the associate degree, and may not require more than 120 units for completion of the baccalaureate degree.

One potential challenge for historians is apparent confusion over the viability of "non-core" courses in the new transfer degrees. The state-level Transfer Model Curriculum (TMC) for history lists two required courses—History of the United States I and II; two additional courses to be chosen from among four options—World History I and II, Introduction to Western Civilization I and II; one course to be chosen from among a number of foreign language or nonwestern history courses; and, one additional course to be chosen from a wide variety of history or related courses. As noted above, many community college history programs offer dozens of courses in addition to the four to six required by the TMC. Virtually all of these courses satisfy general education requirements; nevertheless, some have argued that offering non-core courses is an inefficient use of shrinking resources: we should instead redistribute most of our FTEF to basic skills courses or to the expansion of the "core" courses required for transfer. One problem with this argument is that although there is clearly a need for remediation, basic skills courses do not seem to be particularly effective in elevating student skills to college level within a reasonable time frame.3 Another problem is that most community colleges already offer more than enough sections of the U.S., world, and Western Civilization classes to support transfers in the history major. At the 25,000-student college in which I work, we have granted 50 associate degrees in history during the last 5 years. During that same period, we offered about 600 history courses. This means 50 students from among approximately 24,000 who enrolled in history courses transferred with a history major. Clearly, most students taking history courses in California community colleges are not pursuing majors in history. Most are probably taking those courses to satisfy American Institutions requirements and to fill other GE breadth requirements. But some (I fervently hope) are taking history courses because they want to learn something about history; and their interests may not be limited to the areas covered by the “core courses.” Most students in the United States who take courses in History will do so at a community college: it would do them a great disservice to restrict history offerings to a six-course “core.”

The potential results of SB 1440's interpretation and implementation, along with the impact of another recent piece of legislation, SB 1456, may also work to devalue the history major for our students. SB 1440 requires associate degrees in the major for priority transfer to the CSU. SB1456 is intended to enable student success, a goal everyone supports but no one defines in exactly the same terms. One of the bill's sections requires students to identify an academic and career goal very early, and to maintain progress in pursuing the appropriate course of study in a timely manner. Depending on how legislative language is translated into practice, this provision may compel students to declare a major as they begin their lower-division education, and to stick with it if they want to retain priority registration, transfer, and financial aid. I think this model works particularly poorly for those who might become history majors. Most students begin college with at least some idea of what a business major is all about; fewer are clear on what history is as an academic discipline. Many students decide to focus on history after taking one or two courses as part of their general education, and only then deciding that this is an area in which they want to major.

Many of our current woes are the result of not only a failed economy, but also of long-term political pressures, most of them coming from the corporate sector and from neoliberal politicians in both major parties. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, neoliberalism has not only dominated political discourse, but has extended its influence into virtually every area of American life. Those who celebrate the alleged "majesty" of the marketplace have quite successfully extended market logic to all our social institutions, including education. Neoliberals, who see economic outcomes as rating highest priority, characterize public educational institutions as cost inefficient, and portray public educators as self-interested elitists who resist legitimate demands for accountability.4 The short-term solution to making public colleges more accountable is to increase government oversight, a rather ironic position for those who generally disparage government. The long-term solution, though, is more to their liking: even more extensive privatization of higher education. One way to encourage that process is to drastically cut state funding, as is the case in California. Students who cannot get the classes they need because of cuts in our community college budgets are being aggressively recruited by private, proprietary institutions that charge very high tuition and fees, but that promise readily available classes and easy access to abundant government-backed loans to pay those steep costs.

I still have hope for the future of public higher education. But that hope will prove illusory unless there is a re-affirmation of the concept that education is not just a private tool for achieving individual success: it is a public utility, a social good that benefits all. History will continue to be taught with breadth and depth in California's community colleges only if public funding increases to keep pace with student demand, highly qualified tenure-track historians are hired in significant numbers, faculty and administrators successfully retain what remains of our prerogatives to plan curriculum and shape instruction, and we collectively find the will and strength to resist the imposition of private market models of operation on the most vital of public institutions, our schools and colleges.

Update: The voters of California, on November 6, 2012, passed Proposition 30.  As a result, $210 million will be added to community college funding for 2012–2013; however, most of this money will be used to partially retire the $961 million dollars in debt resulting from cash flow deferrals to the colleges.  The situation is far better than it would have been had Prop 30 failed; but it will take years to restore the resources lost over the last five years.

is the dean of the School of Social/Behavioral Sciences and Multicultural Studies, San Diego Mesa College. He has written about the experiences of Italian American garment union activists, the corporatization of higher education, and the teaching of history in community colleges. Zappia has served on the Professional Division of the AHA, the Teaching and Community College Committees of the OAH, and the Executive Board of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. He earned his PhD in history at the University of California, Berkeley. He wishes to thank Dolores Davison (Foothill College), Christopher Johnson (Palomar College), Alan Kirshner (Ohlone College), and Gloria Miranda (El Camino College) for their thoughtful responses to a list of questions he posed in preparation for this article.


1. California Code of Regulations, Title 5. Education, Division 5, Chapter 1, Subchapter 2, Article 5, Section 40404.

2. , “The OAH and the Community College Professoriate,” in Richard S. Kirkendall, Editor, The Organization of American Historians & The Writing & Teaching of American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 279-286.

3. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges,A Comparison of Basic Skills Success Rates and Basic Skills Action Planning Strategies in the California Community Colleges, (November 2008).

4. David Hursch, “Neo-liberalism, Markets and Accountability: Transforming Education and Undermining Democracy in the United States and England,” Policy Futures in Education, Volume 3, Number 1, (2005), 3–15; Daniel B. Saunders, “Neoliberal Ideology and Public Higher Education in the United States,”Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Volume 8, Number 1 (August 2010), 42–77.

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