California community college students will soon be required to take ethnic studies

Students outside Laney College in Oakland, Calif. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

A new course requirement in ethnic studies is officially coming to California’s community colleges.

The board of governors overseeing the state’s 116 community colleges voted unanimously Monday to amend the system’s general education requirements by adding an ethnic studies class. 

The requirement will be in place for students pursuing an associate degree and could take effect as soon as fall 2022, although it will more likely go into effect in fall 2023. Under the requirement, students will have to take a class in Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latina and Latino studies. 

Carlos Guerrero, a professor of Chicano studies at LA City College and co-chair of the ethnic studies council for California’s community colleges, said during Monday’s meeting that he’s witnessed the positive impact that taking ethnic studies courses has on students.

“We’ve had students who come through our classes, and it gives them a bigger sense of who they are and the sense of belonging to a larger American community,” Guerrero said.

Community college presidents and district chancellors across the state have also praised the requirement, saying it will benefit students to learn about the histories and contributions of nonwhite ethnic groups.

The requirement will affect students at California’s 115 community colleges that award degrees. It won’t apply to students at Calbright, the online-only college that awards certificates but not degrees.

Before the new requirement is implemented across California’s colleges, the statewide Chancellor’s Office will form a task force that will include ethnic studies faculty, students and the statewide Academic Senate.

The task force’s responsibilities will include determining when the requirement will take effect, more narrowly defining ethnic studies for the community college system and coordinating with the 23-campus California State University to make sure that the requirement is aligned with that system’s own ethnic studies requirement.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1460, which mandates that students graduating from CSU must take a class in ethnic studies. 

Illustration via iStock

CSU is requiring students to take that class as part of their lower-division coursework. For the many students who take those classes at a community college before transferring to CSU, that means they will be expected to fulfill the requirement at their community college before they go to their CSU campus.

To fulfill the requirement, students planning to transfer to CSU must take a class that has been approved by CSU. Currently, community colleges across the state are in the process of getting their ethnic studies courses approved.

Aisha Lowe, the community college system’s vice chancellor of educational services and support, said the earliest that the requirement would go into effect would be for students entering in fall 2022. But she said her recommendation would be to wait until fall 2023.

“I’m looking at the very real realities of what our colleges are facing right now, recovering from the impact of the pandemic,” she said. “And looking at the very real realities that our colleges are still working just to meet that new CSU requirement and get courses approved through the CSU system.”

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