While hawking higher education from a booth at a local street fair recently, Bill Wenrich met a Newport Beach patent attorney who was on his way home from a Saturday field trip with his geology class.
With a hard-core, fast-track bachelor's degree in engineering and a graduate degree from Stanford Law School, the lawyer said - still in his grubby rockhound's clothes - he had never had a chance to pursue his own interests. Now , at night and on weekends, he was taking geology and astronomy at Santa Ana College, a community college about 30 miles south of Los Angeles.
''So what kind of education is that?'' asks Bill Wenrich, president and superintendent of the college - in other words, it is the kind of education the state should support.
Last year the answer to that question wouldn't have made any difference. This year, after a tightening move last -summer by the California Legislature, it will determine how much the state pays for such courses.
The knotty problems of egalitarianism may seem abstract to many, problems that pit equality against quality, or ask who should pay to make people's lives more satisfying.
But the place these problems mean dollars and cents, and more so than ever before, is in the offices of chancellors and presidents of the nation's community colleges.
These aren't typical academics. A self-defining, constantly changing institution like the community college, some observers note, attracts a different kind of leadership.
''It's not important that (UC Berkeley Chancellor) -Michael Heyman be a star at the local Rotary Club,'' notes Gerald C. Hayward, the systemwide chancellor of California's community colleges. But the community college president needs those kinds of ties.
A factory manager comes to Mr. Wenrich because his -employees need to learn some Spanish, for instance. Soon, Santa Ana College has another much-needed classroom as instructors (and those students who find it convenient) trek over to the factory for conversational Spanish classes.
These are no longer the days of junior colleges where high school graduates collect two-year degrees, the first half of bachelors', or vocational certificates. That was just the jumping-off place.
These are the entrepreneurs of equality.
Their business: They help the ''reentry'' housewife get out of the house. When the housing market tightens up they turn real estate agents into insurance salespeople. They teach old people things they never had a chance to learn. They give students who failed in school, or quit, another shot. And they teach academic college courses free.
Call it investing in human capital.
They set up storefront offices among the dime stores and the beauty salons. They own TV stations and work over the airwaves. They go into factories and offices to hold sessions.
Call it reaching for new markets.
Whether you want a job, a degree, or a more interesting hobby, many of them will teach you anything you, and enough other people to form a class, want to know. For 20 years this has been a fast-growth business, and at this point it's big business.
But the community college is headed into the throes of an identity crisis. How they will come out of it will make a difference to local labor markets and to the quality of life, community college presidents say, as well as to all those who can't get admitted to, afford to attend, or move away from home to enroll in another kind of college.
''These are first-rate entrepreneurs who have outrun their resources,'' says David W. Breneman of the Brookings Institution, after completing a study of community college finances earlier this year.
The rallying cry of community college presidents for the past two decades has been ''access'' - the egalitarian impulse to open the doors of education to everyone who wants it.
The doors have opened widest in California, where a quarter of the nation's community college students are enrolled, and the only state where no tuition is charged.
It was early in the century that some colleges began to break off the first two years into a separate academy. Gradually the junior college idea came to include technical training as well as academic work. They blossomed most abundantly in the early 1960s. Now there are over a thousand public community colleges in the country, and nearly half of the nation's undergraduates are enrolled in one.
That community colleges have succeeded in making higher education more democratic, virtually no one disagrees. A longtime teacher of economics courses recalls seeing only a couple of women in each class of two dozen when he started in 1957. Now he sees roughly half and half, men and women, and many of the women are married. Community colleges have more than their share of minority undergraduate students, too. And age is no object. The average is now between 28 and 29.
The community college has even gone after the student who doesn't want to go to college.
A case: An elderly resident at a southern California -retirement community can earn an associate degree from her living room TV set. Coastline College in Huntington Beach, Calif., has no campus. But last semester it had 34,000 students enrolled in classes at 150 centers around its district. Over 5,000 of them were enrolled by mail in TV courses. At Coastline the average student's age is 39. These students - those who aren't retired - tend to work and have established lives and don't have much time to go to a campus, explains Jack Chappell, a spokesman for the college. To older students, the prospect of competing with young collegians can be intimidating, he says, so TV provides a ''threshold'' back into the educational stream. In 1979 one of Coastline's courses won an Emmy.
And few would accuse the community college of not responding to the community they teach in, either. College presidents are keenly aware of the soft spots in local labor pools, and they take pains to get needed skills to people who can use them.
A case: In a very ordinary shopping mall across the street from Santa Ana College, in a storefront operation next to a Montgomery Ward, there's a classroom with half-assembled plumbing pipes and a door lock on the tables. Take them apart and put them together and people here will tell you if you're any good at it.
Here people find out where they fit in. The walk-in customers are mostly unemployed young men, many without a good grasp of English. Out front there is a patchwork quilt of federal, state, and local civil servants to tell you what you need for the kind of work that suits you, and how you can get it.
Downstairs, classrooms bulge with Indochinese refugees learning basic English. These refugees have recently flooded Orange County by the thousands. The center is run by Santa Ana College, where the Indochinese have not only swollen the English as a Second Language classes, but they also make up 50 or 60 percent of the students in machine tool, electronics, and word-processing courses. This puts them one or two years away from good jobs, says Bill Wenrich.
People need these courses to make a basic fit into society, he says. ''The economic payback to the state is many times the cost.''
These are the things the community colleges are good at.
But then, what of it? If someone in a local retirement community can take a calligraphy course by television without ever leaving home, so much the better. But how much is it worth to the state that underwrites it? The question is more urgent - in times of shrinking funds - considering how far the community college has swung toward part-time adult education.
In California, three-quarters of those enrolled are part-time. More students take one course than any other number. Only 20 percent have either graduated or are still enrolled by the end of their third year.
Critics feel the colleges are losing their place in higher education - that is, the quality of the academic program for serious college students is suffering in an institution that tries to be everything to everybody.
This has brought on what may become a new rallying cry, shouldering ''access'' to the side: ''Quality.''
''Too many smorgasbord programs,'' says Dr. Koltai.
''We're giving up our birthright for a mess of potage,'' says Grace Ohlson, a trustee in Los Rios community college district, also in California.
''Anyone who transfers to a baccalaureate program from a community college does so in spite of the community college program,'' says Arthur Cohen, an education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of a community college information clearinghouse. Dr. Cohen calls for better-orchestrated academic plans and a return to standards - student screening , performance standards, and advanced course requirements.
''Start flunking people again, for crying out loud,'' he says.
Dr. Koltai, as chancellor of California's largest district, is proposing some changes in the statewide system to play up both academic transfer programs and serious career building in electronic, computer, laser, and solar technologies (all skills that will be in demand locally).
Dr. Koltai is less interested in the student who drops his mechanics course as soon as he learns how to fix his carburetor. He also would like to have student abilities assessed to see if they really belong in the courses they want. ''Let's not waste each other's time,'' he says.
''We are responsible for equal access, but we're also responsible for what happens to them afterwards.'' When only 4 percent transfer to other colleges, and another 4 percent get associate degrees, he says, something is out of balance.
But such ideas still smack of heresy with many of his colleagues, and Koltai knows it. ''The general feeling among community college people is: We are doing so well now, why change?''
How well they are actually doing is tough to weigh. Full-time teachers teach here, other community college chancellors point out, rather than graduate students or professors preoccupied with their own research. It usually takes the transfer student from a community college longer to get a baccalaureate, yet he performs as well academically as the university native.
But much more basically, many who run community colleges feel that as long as the community gets what it wants, they are successful.
The catch is that there are two communities: the community that lines up for classes and the community that pays taxes. In California particularly, these two communities were historically the same. Local taxes paid for local decisions. But where the coffers used to be less than 20 percent state-filled, now they have became less than 20 percent locally filled.
The next step is predictable enough. And according to Dr. Breneman of Brookings, whose book on community college financing will appear later this year , it's characteristic of what's happening elsewhere in the country. More of the decisions come from the state capitol.
Community colleges are reluctant to lose the toehold in higher education their traditional transfer students give them, Breneman says. ''And perhaps rightly so. It's what the state thinks they're financing.''
Indeed, the California Legislature - unlike many chancellors and presidents - seems to think some courses are more important for the community colleges than others. This past June it cut off support from certain kinds of noncredit classes in areas such as recreation, personal finance, or coping with the death of a loved one. And for all noncredit, adult-education classes, it lowered the state contribution by more than a third.
Polls show that people are less willing to support lifelong learning without college credit than vocational or degree programs. So notes Chancellor Hayward of the statewide system.
Demand for courses is still growing, he says. ''The public is still clamoring to go to school.'' But the entrepreneurial instincts of the local administrators will shift their focus from access and boosting enrollments to productivity and efficiency.
This means that the open door of free access swings slightly shut.
The surplus the state budget has fed on since Proposition 13 is nearly depleted, and education is expected to bear more than its share of the fiscal slashes.
If Hayward has his way, the colleges will get by with trimming ''marginalia'' from programs and drumming up outside funds. Others, like the Brookings's Breneman, foresee a hard choice ahead that the many community colleges haven't had to make: Which kind of student comes first?
After all, high schools can also provide adult education, and they generally do it cheaper, though the offerings are usually much narrower.
Adult education has suffered politically because it is easy to belittle. The value of those programs that get people jobs is easy to measure, but those that may make lives more fulfilling in other ways sometimes lose out.
''I understand the gut reaction to hearing about courses in ornamental cooking and all,'' Santa Ana's Dr. Wenrich says. ''But it gets more complicated with, say, conversational Spanish.'' While it is considered a credit, transfer program-type course - and is funded as such - a given class may have students in it for all sorts of other reasons: recreation, strictly vocation, personal enrichment, or academic.
How, he asks, can you sort these reasons out and make a judgment about how much the state should pitch in for each?
To Wenrich, the enrichment is as important as qualifying for jobs. And he notes that the state is willing to support football at nearly every level, tap dancing at the University of California at Berkeley, and Frisbee at California State University at Chico. Why not needlepoint at a community college for a retired lawyer?
So far, this state has resisted charging tuition for such courses. Many administrators say they will charge such fees, however, before cutting out programs.
Even the state budget crunch that forces choices, observes Tom Groningen, superintendent of the Yosemite community college district, is a choice. ''It's not a lack of resources, it's how we've decided to use them,'' he says. ''Now people want private control of (tax) money.''
If we continue to inch shut the door to community colleges, Dr. Groningen asks, ''What will that eventually mean to the work force? That's a very practical question. A more esoteric question is, What effect will this have on the quality and enrichment of life?''
Should we pay for the personal enrichment of those who might or might not be able to afford it themselves?
''I would hate like ever to think that a society as affluent as ours decides it can't afford to do that,'' Groningen says. ''That probably bothers me more than anything.''