Progress Toward Free Higher Education: City College of San Francisco

In the latest state attempt to salvage the California higher education social contract, bill SB 520 indicates that 85% of California Community Colleges (CCC) reported having waiting lists for their fall 2012 course sections, with a statewide average of more than 7,000 students on waiting lists per college.  This figure of nearly 500,000 individuals does not include those for whom such a salient fact discourages pursuit of higher education – be it a child entering high school or an adult entering retirement.

These individuals are not only denied access to higher education, they are left vulnerable to exploitation by venture and “philanthrocapitalists” chomping at the bit to get a piece of the SB 520 online solution.

This circumstance is particularly offensive since the affected have a right to free higher education, as ratified by the United States in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [here after, International Covenant].  Article 13, sections 2 (c) and (e) read:

(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education; and (e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching [academic] staff shall be continuously improved.[Emphasis added]

Because California colleges have missions specifying open admission, access to higher education is not restricted based on age, race, sex, scholastic or physical ability; though it is restricted based on economic means and available institutional resources - what the International Covenant calls the “basis of capacity."

The largest such open mission is held by City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which this July stands to lose its institutional accreditation.  This will significantly further reduce access to higher education – not to mention its impact on the material conditions, fellowship system and right to earn a living of academic staff.

There are numerous causes of this ongoing tragedy but primary among them is insufficient funding to sustain the current model for the provision of higher education.  This model might be described as a triad consisting of institutional service providers (universities and colleges), government funding and union labour representation.

The lack of funding has had predictable negative impact on institutions of the triad.  CCSF is indicative of circumstances across the United States and elsewhere: in-fighting among faculty and administrators; reduced quality of education; deteriorating working conditions; reduced access; encroachment by venture capitalists; increased tuition; institutional bankruptcy; labour exploitation; and more.

But one has to wonder, as a principal service provider of the triad that has been subjected to significant and persistent government funding cuts, what else might CCSF have done?

The college streamlined administration and committed the vast majority of its revenue to instruction and faculty compensation.  Still they are to be shut down.  Some of the most vulnerable academics and students in the system will be wandering the streets of San Francisco with no apparent place to offer and accept education.  All interaction between the 90,000 students and 1500 faculty will stop.

This is unacceptable, but also necessary under the triad model.  If the principal providers of higher education are institutions, then as they stumble and fall with funding, management, accreditation, capacity or other common problems, individuals will be affected on a large scale.

At the same time it is important to emphasize that CCSF will lose the approval of institutional accreditation - not approval of the qualified educators found in its employ - and further the institution itself is not to be identified as the activity of higher education, but merely as a means to facilitate that activity - as best it can under the circumstances.

Unless a replacement or revised model is found individuals will continue to be denied access to the activity of higher education, be they the academics that offer it or the students that seek it.

I have in development an entrepreneurial model that, while it is no solution to the immediate troubles at CCSF, it is designed to allow students and academics displaced, ignored or exploited by the triad to initiate their own higher education relationships – independent of vulnerable institutions such as CCSF.

Considering that services such as healthcare, legal counsel, engineering, psychiatry, accounting and others are offered under the protection and direction of professional social contracts, I believe the same can be done for higher education.

If this is true then institutional employers are not required and so their deterioration or closure can have no effect on large numbers of individuals.  If a professional higher education social contract was in place the CCSF students and teachers that are to find themselves on the streets in July of 2014 could continue to transact education as they see fit, using the facilities and services readily available on those same streets.

I can present here only a hint of this alternative – for more detail see, “A New Tender for the Higher Education Social Contract." But to begin to see how this entrepreneurial model can facilitate and finance higher education in the absence of institutional service providers consider these two points:

First, the accreditation that CCSF stands to lose is essentially the product of a longstanding practice where, through a third-party, institutions license institutions to practice higher education.  The professional model also relies on a longstanding practice in licensure where, through professional association, individuals license individuals.  In this case, academics in professional association would license academics to practice higher education, thereby cutting out the middleman college and the need for institutional accreditation.

Since accreditation amounts to a license to practice higher education and is exclusively applied to institutions or programs of study, if a college loses it and closes then academics are left without employment and without sanction to independently offer their expertise to the public.  The professional model provides that sanction by licensing individual academics to practice in their respective fields, as attorneys, physicians, accountants and other professionals are licensed to offer their equally valuable and personal services to the public.

Second, as an historical fact about professions, the provision of their services is typically integrated with the existing community infrastructure.  As an academic whose field is philosophy I am confident that my services can be offered to the public using off-campus infrastructure.  From office and lecture space to equipment and support staff these operational resources can be secured from local businesses or, since the existing triad institutional resources are a publicly funded interest, chronically under-utilized, and in the case of CCSF soon to be entirely un-utilized, these resources could be made available by the state to independent professional academics at competitive or discount rates.  This concept video captures what I have in mind.

I believe this is equally true for at least the rest of the Humanities, but also for Business, Law, Formal Sciences, and Remedial Studies.

If a social contract were formed as the basis for a new profession then as a member in good standing I would be licensed by my professional academic society to provide higher education (and other services) in philosophy.  I could open and operate a private practice that secures resources on the basis of professional prerogative, practice management and market forces.

This entrepreneurial model is a radical departure from the triad, though not from the history of higher education.  At the same time the modern triad model is so well-entrenched that even the language of the International Covenant assumes a “system of schools” with “teaching staff, while it requires that “by every appropriate means [there be] progressive introduction of free [higher] education.”

Setting the question of appropriateness aside, as a proven means of providing other valued services, the professional model is a viable means to not only provide and expand access to higher education for both academics and students but offers real progress toward a free higher education system.  This is because the cost to operate the model is significantly lower than the triad.

I estimate that in my field and those I have identified a professional higher education practice could operate on the current advertised price of tuition alone, with significantly reduced administration and requiring no public appropriations for operations or capital expansion.  This means the total cost of the professional model is between 50 and 75% lower than the triad - depending on the state.  When combined with the consequent expansion of access to educators this economic advantage opens the door to real progress toward free higher education for all.


I offer a closing note to further emphasize the relative risk associated with the triad and professional models.  The CCSF website now prominently displays assurances that the college is “OPEN” and “ACCREDITED.”  Comparatively the website for my professional academic practice might read: “OPEN” and “LICENSED.”

The difference is that should my practice close because I lose the license to practice higher education the impact on the system and individuals would be very minor when contrasted with the scale of impact should CCSF have to close its doors this coming summer.  I might displace at most a few hundred students and a few support staff – though there would be other philosophy practices where these individuals could resume studies or employment.  By contrast CCSF will displace 10s-of-thousands of students and support staff – with no place to go but the streets.

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