California Community Colleges deserve more support

On November 15, 2021, CalMatters published this op-ed from Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education, entitled, “California Community Colleges deserve more support“:

California Community Colleges’ roster of former students reads like a “Who’s Who” of public service, economic achievement, social mobility and ethnic diversity.

They include legendary Apple CEO Steve Jobs, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s Chief Justice Tani Catil-Sakauye, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner, author Amy Tan, labor leader Dolores Huerta and Hall of Fame baseball player and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson.

While the list of California Community Colleges’ former students is long and illustrious, it doesn’t begin to measure the system’s far-reaching contributions to our state’s economy and its resilience. Community colleges play a pivotal role in training California’s nurses, firefighters, police, welders, auto mechanics, airplane mechanics and construction workers.

They provide an important ladder to four-year institutions, and they team up with industry and labor to create innovative skills-building initiatives that support opportunities in a variety of fields – from automotive technology and advanced manufacturing to health care and web development.

With more than 2.1 million students at 116 campuses, California Community Colleges is the largest system of higher education in the United States. Almost three-quarters of the students come from diverse backgrounds, including traditionally underserved ethnic communities. Those who graduate from community colleges improve their chances of finding good jobs: occupations that typically require associate degrees pay an average annual wage of almost $53,000, compared with $36,100 for workers who don’t make their way past high school.

Despite increased support from the governor and the Legislature, California Community Colleges went several years without its fair share of state funds from Proposition 98, the voter-approved initiative that sets a minimum level of funding for K-12 schools and community colleges. While this year’s budget set records for higher education funding, California Community Colleges’ per-student resources have long been far too low, even as its costs increase, often times faster than inflation, making it more difficult for colleges to even maintain existing programs.

The financial health of the entire public higher education system is critical to our state’s future. At current rates, only about a third of California’s current 9th graders will earn a bachelor’s degree, and lower college completion among Latinx, Black and low-income Californians exacerbates the state’s economic divide.

California Community Colleges are a critical rung in the ladders of success for students from all walks of life. Beginning in high school, community colleges offer students college courses, and the students who enrolled in these classes in high school were more likely to enroll in a college or university after high school: 81% compared to 62% of all California high school students.

Black and Latinx students were less likely to take college courses in high school than Asian and white students, so promoting this opportunity is important to enrollment participation and success among historically underrepresented groups.

For those who attend California Community Colleges, nearly 80,000 transfer to University of California and California State University campuses each year, and nearly 30% of UC graduates and over half of CSU graduates started at a community college. The transfer role is especially important for low-income students, first-generation college students and students from underrepresented groups because they’re more likely to start their higher education journey in a community college.

State leaders have recognized that transfers open the door to bachelor’s degrees for a more diverse population of students, and California Community Colleges are narrowing the achievement gap for students of color in its Vision for Success. It has already met its 2022 goal of a 20% increase in students receiving credentials, and its Vision for Success calls for a 35% increase in students transferring to a UC or CSU campus.

These efforts have won support from lawmakers in Sacramento. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law two measures – Assembly Bill 928 and Assembly Bill 1111 – that will encourage more community college students to transfer into four-year institutions.

Now it’s up to state leaders to ensure California Community Colleges continue to have the resources it needs to provide the important rungs in the ladders to success for California students, and that the UC and CSU have the capacity to accept the students seeking to transfer.