With about two million enrolled students, California’s community colleges constitute the largest higher-education structure in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It’s a system in which I taught in both Northern and Southern California, across five college districts, on nine campuses, over the course of more than 10 years. I’ve come to see it all as one vast, multi-perspectival prism through which to view the state of our state, which is why this past August, in the same week that President Joe Biden enacted controversial student-loan-forgiveness legislation, I decided to travel California’s freeways, streets, mountain passes, and farmworker fields, from San Diego to Sacramento, to learn what these schools could teach me about California and its communities. This is a portion of that journey.

san diego city college, california community colleges
San Diego City College has adopted a no-tuition approach to education.
Charlie Neuman


It started like this: I googled “San Diego CC,” and the top search result was the San Diego Country Club website. An algorithmic impossibility, I figured. In one corner, you have a private club frequented by maybe a few hundred members at most, and in the other, according to the San Diego Community College District’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Research, you have an unduplicated head count of 21,835 students enrolled at City College during the 2021–22 academic year. When you link that number with the rest of the district’s community colleges, you get 67,647 students who were regularly traversing the city commons physical and virtual. City College just had to be the more Google populous, right?

But as I performed the search again and again, nothing changed. So I decided I would schedule a visit to the country club to see what made it the destination of the masses. Thankfully, signing up for a tour didn’t require a review of my finances. Let’s just say, my salary and worldly possessions can’t quite accommodate the $30,000 initiation fee, $1,150 monthly dues, and $1,200 annual food-and-beverage minimum payment of the Individual Equity Membership. I’ve aged out of the cheaper Junior Executive Membership, which is available only to those ages 21 to 39, with a $15,000 initiation fee and $670 monthly dues. If I moved into a student hostel, I could afford the basic National Membership, but I’ve also aged out of having six roommates. What I haven’t aged into is getting rich.

Community college students are much younger, but they also tend to be a lot poorer than their professors, which suggests the schism between San Diego’s two very different CCs. This class divide is why, as I waited for my Lyft, I frantically googled what score would make a plausible golf handicap for someone like the person I was pretending to be.

San Diego, like all our state’s border towns, is a dual citizen, both Mexican and American, a fact that became apparent as my Lyft left the immigrant-heavy outskirts of the city and neared the country club, which was decidedly whiter and richer. At the gated entrance, an attendant stepped out from his kiosk, blocking our way. I explained that I had an appointment. The attendant gestured for the Lyft to turn around and leave and for me to pass through the wrought iron gates and enter the dark mouth of a grand building, beyond which, I could see, lay the vast golf course. But before I could step inside the sanctum, I realized I’d left my phone in the Lyft. I turned back with some dignity, which meant I moved too slowly: my ride was gone and the phone with it, neither of them ever to be seen again. I gazed at the distant greens and the rolling fairways and thought how it might be nice if City College’s students had a little bit of all this.

san diego city college, california community colleges, dance class
A dance class at San Diego City College attracts students of all ages.
Charlie Neuman

San Diego City College is the taxpayer-propelled antithesis of the country club. The campus weaves its concrete cord between corporate skyscrapers and high-rise, high-rent apartment complexes. Down on the ground on the first day of classes, proud parents pose their freshmen children before campus landmarks and snap photos. Two girls rotate around a planter box filled with succulents and take their own pictures. They love wildlife, they tell me as they share their captures of grasshoppers perched on green stalks and butterflies poised on flower petals. Meanwhile, the Bank of America building and the Beacon apartments and City College’s own massiveness rise above us.

A few minutes later, a Black man with a marijuana-flower necklace, graying dreads, and the beginnings of a cataract in one eye shows me the way to the office of the president.

“In terms of the [college] mission, it really is social justice and educational equity, so we got a swag to us at San Diego City College, where we transform students in a very intentional way,” President Ricky Shabazz told me in May. Both on Zoom and in person, Shabazz radiates intellectual energy. As conversant in world-systems theory as in enrollment numbers, he is an impressive administrative mind. But more notable are students like Alexander Daumas, who appreciates the many services at City College while also noting that the school’s “biggest challenge” will be navigating between online and in-person classes “to help our fellow students bloom after such a hard couple years.”

So it’s with more than a little sadness that I share here the primarily COVID-induced dwindling of City College’s enrollment, down approximately 2,500 economically and otherwise imperiled students since the start of the pandemic. On this muggy morning, I’m showered with stories of time lost, of trajectories diverted.

Not despite but because of the difficulties of the past three years, Shabazz’s plans remain ambitious. City College’s no-tuition approach, the product of the San Diego Promise program, may draw more students to the school. Shabazz sees this policy as a harbinger of the greater role community college can play in U.S. higher education. “We have to start making a case for community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees,” he told me. “That is the next phase of this no-tuition approach.”

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San Diego City College president Ricky Shabazz.
Charlie Neuman

I leave San Diego with my mind mixed: President Shabazz’s vision is a necessary confrontation with a California that is intentionally evacuating its working class, cynically employing social justice jargon to obscure the increasing inequity on the streets. As luxury high-rises go up in downtowns across the state, their shadows obliterate the plight of low-skilled labor and the unhoused below.

east los angeles college, california community colleges, campus
Students at East Los Angeles College.
Christina Gandolfo


Googling “Los Angeles CC” also brings forth the city’s most famous country club before its community college. Malcolm Gladwell, in his Revisionist History newsletter, had some fun with the idea of the club selling massive amounts of its green space back to the city, back to the people. The club, recast as “Beverly Park Country Club,” is also the setting of a scathing Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. It probably is no coincidence that Gladwell, who is of mixed race, and Larry David, who is Jewish, have taken particular aim at the original LACC: the venerable institution, established in 1897, excluded Jews and Blacks for many years, admitting its first Black member in 1991.

To be fair, other country clubs in the area were established by Jewish people. Those clubs have always been extremely exclusive as well, but as long as you have the initiation fee, which can run as high as $185,000, you can join no matter how you self-identify.

In Los Angeles, I stay at Hollywood Hotel: The Hotel of Hollywood, just in case you didn’t catch it the first time. Confusingly, the hotel is located in the East Hollywood neighborhood, not Hollywood. The hotel’s branding makes it something of a tourist trap, an effective one, I observe in my two nights of lodging there as guest after guest rolls their Mickey Mouse or Marilyn Monroe suitcases past me.

Meanwhile, the streets outside the hotel host more homeless people’s tents than luxury handbags—many more. According to the Los Angeles TimesMapping L.A. project, the median income in East Hollywood is below $30,000, and the four-year college degree attainment rate is 13.4 percent. The car, the substrate of all Angeleno existence, ferries me to a freeway that takes me even farther from fantasy and into the daily grind of this great city.

east los angeles college, california community colleges
The East Los Angeles College campus is coherently put together, its architecture sleek and modern.
Christina Gandolfo

East Los Angeles College is on the come up. Many colleges renovate in fits and starts, which leaves the campuses looking like mash-ups of Gothicism and solar arrays. By contrast, when I visit ELAC during the all-faculty professional-development day that precedes the start of fall classes, I find the campus beautifully, coherently put together, its architecture sleek and modern. But I also find this edifice under strain from the society that surrounds it.

The disproportionate toll that COVID has taken on Latinos is apparent here. The Los Angeles Times reported that from 2019 to 2021, the death rate for Los Angeles County Latinos increased by 48 percent, an amount double that for any other racial group. The death rate for Black Angelenos increased by 23 percent; Asian Angelenos, 22 percent; and white residents, 7.6 percent. What registered in many affluent white communities as a minor setback and functioned as a weapon of political war to instigate the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom presented an existential threat in places like East L.A., where so many Latinos work in service industries and live in close-quarter multigenerational homes.

Chicana/o Studies Department chair and professor Beatriz Tapia bears witness: “COVID exploded a lot of what we’ve been saying for years, and no one was listening to, [about] the realities of our students.” Those realities, Tapia’s colleague Professor Raeanna Gleason tells me, were multifold: “We had a lot of students who had sick parents or parents who died, so then [the students] had to take on extra financial responsibility.”

Another challenge, one that both faculty and students at ELAC face, is the sheer size of the student body, the result of serving the United States’ second-largest city. Prior to COVID, English classes were capped at 45 students, fully 10 more students per class than the cap at any community college I’ve ever taught at. The cap is down to 38, which is still too many. Bear in mind that English professors can’t run student essays through a Scantron. And community college professors, unlike their university counterparts, almost never have teaching assistants. I can count on two fingertips the number of TAs assigned to me in my years teaching community college.

east los angeles college, california community colleges, students, student center
East Los Angeles College serves a community that was hard-hit by COVID.
Christina Gandolfo

Despite all these obstacles, and many others, community college attendees are considered stronger incoming university students than freshmen entering from high school, a commonplace of college admissions criteria that never ceases to surprise everyone except college professors. There’s a notion among her community college students, Gleason explains, that universities are “being nice” by accepting their applications. “They think that when they transfer, they’re going to be at the bottom. And I’m like, ‘Why do you necessarily think that? You’re going to be completely on par with whomever you’re going to be in class with.’”

In addition to preparing students for university, ELAC is the first step toward a better life for many formerly and currently incarcerated people. This becomes clear when I attend a workshop on educating this student group.

Vanessa Ochoa and Elizandro Umaña head Education Justice Rising Scholars, a program dedicated to serving this demographic. Today, they discuss the highly variable nature of education within prisons, high school courses taught in San Quentin’s death row “hanging room,” banned political literature, and the complicated logistics of their program.

Then other folks speak: One professor talks about rising from incarceration to earn a doctorate at UCLA. Another, Dale Lendrum, shares his story of 30 years of drug addiction and repeated imprisonment and how he broke that cycle by going to school, eventually becoming a communication studies instructor. And I reflect on the student testimonials from a panel earlier in the day that featured Travon Reed, a student who, after 13 years and 6 months in prison, is on the cusp of earning his prevention specialist certificate from the addiction studies program at East Los Angeles College. “ELAC,” Reed remarked, “is a beautiful place.” And his story, taken in total with the others, forms an unreported reality that reaches past the statistics of incarceration, homelessness, and addiction that are so commonly deployed to deride people of color, our communities, and California itself.

fresno city college, california community colleges
The Fresno City College campus, located in the San Joaquin Valley.
Jason Henry


From Los Angeles, I head over the Grapevine. So far, I’ve driven the spine of the state, but in coming out of the mountains and driving north, I enter its sweltering guts, its stomach and intestines, where the food is processed: the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno, California.

It was here that thousands of African American families moved in the 1940s to escape Jim Crow segregation, only to encounter continued discrimination and poverty. This is a history not many know, but in a state of 39 million souls, there are at least as many stories.

Forbidden by de facto Jim Crow from settling in the cities, Black folks created work camps on the outskirts, which, despite lacking both niceties and basic necessities, endured as small, unincorporated towns that still stand today: Teviston. Dos Palos. Pixley. Raisin City, where my mother grew up, had been created decades earlier, around 1907, but it served the same purpose.

On my second day in Fresno, I leave the city for this very small place. Here are the endless grape fields, which, I’ve learned, white people like to call “vineyards,” as it suggests fine wine, even though in between the neatly rowed vines planted in the fine dust are spread thin brown papers whereupon picked grapes are laid in bunches to raisin in the sun.

Despite Black people’s best efforts, the economic injustices of the South followed them into these fields. Six cents a tray, they were paid, my mother remembers. One thousand trays a day, they filled, sun up to sun down in the blazing heat, she tells me. Sixty dollars in total, the family—she, her eight siblings, and her mother and father—earned each day.

fresno city college, ernesto cazares, california community colleges
Puente Project counselor coordinator Ernesto Cazares speaks with a Fresno City College student.
Jason Henry

I wonder whether a young person today faced with the same circumstances that my mother came of age in would find more or fewer opportunities than she did in California’s community colleges. For like millions of residents of modest means, my mother began her ascent from poverty in the community college. From there, she would go on to earn advanced degrees and make a career as a research librarian. But she was an anomaly. The children of the fields rarely made it to college.

The grape boycott of 1965–70, largely powered by Latinos and Filipino Americans, and the establishment of the United Farm Workers (UFW) improved wages and working conditions in the fields. Today, the vast majority of farm laborers in the valley are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, their situation incomparable to my mother’s on many levels.

Ernesto Cazares, a counselor coordinator with the Puente Project, an autonomous academic organization with offices on the Fresno City College campus, can reel off the resources that Puente provides to the Latino students who are the program’s focus population. Puente offers tutoring in writing, cohort-based Basic English and Critical Thinking classes, counseling services, and mentoring. “Our counselors,” Cazares says, “are very hands-on.” Mentors, meanwhile, are folks from the campus community who, in his words, “step up” without remuneration of any kind to give students support and guidance.

Yet Cazares acknowledges that Puente alone is not enough, given the steep disadvantages that not only farmworkers and their children but so many low-income Latino students face when they attend college. “There are not a lot of resources. Higher education is designed for students who already have resources,” he states. “As a district and college, we do what we can.… We’ve acquired mobile hot spots, laptops and tablets, but those weren’t enough to serve our 20,000 students. We have computer labs—but students need transportation to get to campus.”

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Art students at Fresno City College.
Jason Henry

The truth is that Puente is doing what it can to help provide an education to people whom U.S. society does not care about and sees as little more than fruit pickers and welfare cases when it’s not being actively hostile toward them. On August 26, 2022, UFW members and supporters completed a 335-mile march to Sacramento, where, at the capitol, they called for the passage of Assembly Bill 2183. The legislation’s aim was to allow farm laborers to vote remotely in union elections rather than be required to do so in person on grower property. That such a concern remains dire decades after the grape boycotts became apparent to me that very same day as I approached the street-facing front of the UFW Foundation offices: opaque privacy glass stared back at me, reflecting only pieces of myself and the scattered sunlight behind me. Within the same hour, I would learn later, some 170 miles away Governor Newsom refused to sign 2183. A month on, after pressure from the White House and the public, Newsom reversed himself, prioritizing his progressive reputation by signing the bill.

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The leafy campus at Columbia College.
Jason Henry


From Fresno, I head into gold country. Columbia College is a two-year tucked in among the trees of Sonora in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The college is one of the two members of the Yosemite Community College District, the other being Modesto Junior College. Both are a solid hour-plus drive time from the district’s namesake, Yosemite National Park. Meanwhile, the vast wildfires that have engulfed thousands of acres of the Sierra foothills this summer are so far east of Sonora that the hikers and campers who use the town as a way station on the trek to Yosemite are still doing their thing mostly uninterrupted. All of which gives some idea of the absolute immensity of this region and of the state itself. I’m reminded that the Bay Area is just the bottom edge of Northern California, that by car there are six more hours above Oakland before the Oregon border.

As I begin to see signs for Sonora, I remember what’s drawn me to this small town. Two old colleagues, Henry Yong and Lena Tran, are administrators for the Yosemite Community College District. Yong is the chancellor of the district, while Tran, as of winter 2022, is the president of Columbia. Back in San Jose, Yong served for six years as president of Evergreen Valley College, where I previously worked as a professor. I remember his stern, impassive presence, the unimpressed Malaysian father I never had. But on the Yosemite website, he’s cracking a slight smile, which is something else about him, now that I think of it, that I remember. I wonder about him and Tran way out here, far from any urban space and, more to the point, very far from very many people of color.

Sonora, conspicuously, is the only destination along this journey where non-Hispanic white people are in the majority, a demography that reflects a lot of things, including white flight from urban centers and the political landscape of the state. Brookings Institution data reveals that as of 2020, 24 percent of rural Americans were people of color, primarily Black people in the South, Native people on reservations throughout the Midwest and Southwest, and Latinos spread across the Southwest as well. But as you reach Northern California, there emerge a lot of little towns even less diverse than Sonora. Looking at all the white people driving past me, I can imagine how remote and unnecessary the clamor around reparations, institutional racism, and their own privilege must seem to them—out of sight, out of mind. This indifference itself is a privilege. But as I absorb the sights of oaks and conifers rising around me, sheltering me, an apolitical, nonanalytical calm takes root inside me. I can imagine Yong and Tran feeling a similar release from the pressures that shape our state.

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A music ensemble at Columbia College.
Jason Henry

The road that leads into the campus grounds cleaves into side streets where sit parking lots, student dormitories, and the Oak Pavilion gymnasium, among other attractions. I park and begin to chat folks up, learning a lot in just a few minutes: foremost, that Columbia is free for all graduates of local high schools and, this semester, for everyone else, too. This, it becomes clear, is the campus’s biggest draw.

“Nothing is free,” President Shabazz reminded me back in San Diego, so when a blond girl perched at a picnic table overlooking the lake that centers the small campus cites the no-tuition approach as one enticement for enrolling at Columbia, I pass this wisdom on to her.

She nods, agrees, because it’s true: California taxpayers are footing the bill for the no-tuition approach.

I’m one of those taxpayers, but I don’t mind the expense. Colleges and universities have essentially taken advantage of students as a captive market by hiking tuition to cover the costs of administrative expansion and facilities excesses. President Biden’s debt relief legislation is a half measure. San Diego and Sonora are the real canaries in the coal mine.

columbia college, california community colleges, campus
Columbia College is free for all graduates of local high schools.
Jason Henry

Sonora was one of California’s great gold-mining towns, and it retains a certain country swagger and style, if not the gold. It has a tourism-heavy economy today, which makes sense given it is one of the last towns with hotels and restaurants and rustic western-clothing stores before Yosemite. It’s also a lovely little place, even though I sense an air of anxiety when the hospitality workers insist that the fires really are very, very far from here.


It is too easy to count the ways that Columbia College differs from the city colleges I’ve visited in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno. What hide in plain sight are its similarities: The no-tuition approach is as popular among students here, in a county where Donald Trump won 58 percent of the vote in 2020, as it is in San Diego, where President Biden won by just as wide a margin. The people I approach on this conifer-canopied campus are just as friendly and just as drawn to the taxpayer-funded student services that community college provides as the young people in inner-city Los Angeles and Fresno. And very real problems shadow the spaces of student opportunity everywhere. Social media and Fox News are rife with propaganda against Democrat-controlled cities like Los Angeles, where unhousedness and human shit can be seen in the streets, but the fact is that these problems are also a reality in Republican-controlled Fresno. The Left doesn’t have a poverty problem; California does, the United States does. And in raw numbers, Fresno’s concentrated poverty has long been as bad as and often worse than anywhere else in the state.

Meanwhile, all the little Sonoras of Northern California really are relative havens of security, where predominantly white populations live in comparative comfort and safety, far from the intensity and difficulty of urban life. But these places are not paradises. The Sonora economy’s tourism dependence means that it is subject to the economic status of the cities. Here in the deep rural reaches of the state, wildfires like the one that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018 are only one bad day away—not unlike, in sheer randomness and terror, the existential threats that haunt hardworking Black and brown people in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno.

Ours is a divided state, but our paradox is that we are infinitely interconnected. As I settle my bill with Hotel Lumberjack and pack my bags, finally headed home, I can taste the thick, gritty air with every breath. The fires in the Sierra foothills remain far away, but the winds carry their smoke trail east. And from the south, the most intense heat wave of the summer is rising toward us all, from the gold country to the coast.

Keenan Norris’s latest book, Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings, was published on January 9, 2023.