How new law requiring ethnic studies at California State University will affect community colleges

November 2, 2020

Press conference in support of the ethnic studies graduation requirement in Sacramento on June 27, 2018.

A new law requiring an ethnic studies class in order to graduate from the California State University will likely have far-reaching implications for the state’s 115 degree-granting community colleges.

Administrators at the 23-campus CSU are planning to implement the new requirement as a lower-division course, meaning students would have to take it during the first half of their coursework. Thousands of students take those classes at community colleges and receive their associate degree before transferring to CSU as part of a specialized pathway. If CSU moves forward with its current plan, it would shift the burden to the community colleges to offer ethnic studies to those students. 

CSU’s Board of Trustees is expected to vote this month to finalize the implementation plan. The trustees are scheduled to meet Nov. 17 and 18.

The new law, AB 1460, requires CSU students to take a class in one of four ethnic studies disciplines: Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latina and Latino studies

The statewide chancellor’s office for the community colleges is supportive of the new law but is concerned that it may not be feasible for them to offer the classes as CSU is proposing. Currently, dozens of community colleges don’t offer any ethnic studies classes and those that do would likely have to expand their offerings. The law goes into effect for students entering college next fall and colleges would have to offer the courses by Fall 2022 at the latest. 

Aisha Lowe, the community college system’s vice chancellor of educational services and support, estimated that it would cost up to $45 million in new spending for the system to offer the required courses. 

“It triggers a lot of changes that need to be made that we support, but we could definitely use some funding to make those changes and probably a little more time than we’re currently being given,” Lowe said in an interview with EdSource.

Some major advocates of the new law disagree with CSU’s interpretation that the requirement must be a lower-division class. That includes the law’s author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and the California Faculty Association, the union representing CSU faculty. They point out that nothing in the law states that the class must be taken as a lower-division course.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, wrote AB 1460, the law making ethnic studies a graduation requirement for CSU.

In a statement, the faculty union said the CSU’s chancellor’s office’s plans are “not aligned with what is in the law and are blatant attempts to minimize faculty control over curriculum.”

Theresa Montaño, a member of CSU’s Ethnic Studies Council that laid the groundwork for the law, said faculty want to give students greater flexibility to fulfill the requirement as they see fit. 

“The legislation called for the implementation of ethnic studies as a requirement, period. It doesn’t call for the implementation of ethics studies as a requirement in general education or in lower-division courses,” Montaño, who is also a professor of Chicano studies at CSU Northridge, said in an interview. “Giving students a choice throughout their academic career is important for us.” 

The CSU chancellor’s office is still accepting feedback from the Ethnic Studies Council and other stakeholders through the end of October, but is leaning strongly toward asking the Board of Trustees to implement the new requirement as a lower-division class.

Under that plan, the ethnic studies requirement would become part of CSU’s general education requirements. All CSU students are required to take 48 semester units, including 39 lower-division units, of general education courses. CSU’s plan for the ethnic studies requirement calls for the 3-credit course to be added to the lower-division requirements, taking the place of three social science credits. 

Students who transfer to a CSU campus from community college as part of the Associate Degree for Transfer pathway are required to complete their general education requirements at community college. Students on that pathway receive their associate degrees from community college and are guaranteed acceptance to CSU if they meet the system’s minimum admission requirements. 

This fall, about 14,000 students transferred to a CSU campus on that pathway, according to the chancellor’s office. 

Alison Wrynn, CSU’s associate vice-chancellor of academic programs, said in an interview that some students who participate in that pathway would not have room to take an ethnic studies class as an upper-division course. That’s because students in certain majors have too many upper-division requirements in their major to fit in another 3-credit class, Wrynn said. For example, students who earn their Associate Degree for Transfer in business administration and transfer to CSU to pursue their bachelor’s degree in the same major would have “no room for a new requirement” in their upper-division classes, she said. 

We believe that this fits better at the lower division, and that it’s a good starting point for our students in terms of a requirement,” Wrynn said.

The law goes into effect for students graduating from CSU in 2024-25, meaning that students entering college next fall are the first class that will be subjected to the requirement. 

Lowe, the vice-chancellor for the community college system, said it wouldn’t be possible for all colleges across the state to have sufficient ethnic studies offerings by next fall. Instead, the system wants to have the courses available by Fall 2022. That way, next year’s incoming students would be able to fulfill the requirement in their second year of community college.

The law would impact each of the system’s 116 community colleges except Calbright, the fully online college that offers certificates but not degrees.

Lowe emphasized that the community college system is supportive of the spirit of the requirement, which is in line with the chancellor’s office’s recent Call to Action, which encourages the system to “actively strategize and take action against structural racism.”

But Lowe also acknowledged that it will be a tall task to secure the funding needed to hire enough new faculty across the colleges to offer ethnic studies to all students. The chancellor’s office estimates that about 40 colleges don’t currently offer any ethnic studies classes at all, and those that do will likely need to offer more of those classes to reach all students. 

Budget negotiations with the state are already difficult for the community college system, which receives less per-student dollars than CSU and UC. 

Even if they do get the funding they need, the colleges will also have to figure out where they will find enough qualified new faculty to fill the positions, Lowe said. That could include changing the minimum qualifications for those new hires.

“All of that has to be unpacked. What is the pipeline of those professionals and how do we tap into that pipeline? Does that pipeline need to be expanded and increased in ways that are beyond the purview of just our system and what does all that mean for faculty hiring and minimum qualifications?” Lowe said. “So there’s just a lot that has to be done for our system to be able to provide this.”

The CSU chancellor’s office in September issued a draft executive order to the 23 campuses detailing the proposed changes and is expected to issue a revised order before the end of October. Wrynn, CSU’s associate vice-chancellor, said the chancellor’s office will listen to any input it receives before then.

“If there’s a different way to do it to still meet the needs of all 23 campuses and 116 community colleges, we can certainly engage in that conversation,” she said. “But these are the changes we feel we need to make.”

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