The dream that community colleges offer fading away
“College is making me the man that I always dreamed of becoming.” Those are the words of a student at Mesa Community College, one of 110 in California, and they sum up perfectly the aspirations and opportunities that college education is all about – especially community college. Unfortunately far too many college students today will never see their dreams realized. Of all California community college students who intend to earn an Associate degree or transfer to a four year school, only 24% of them are successful in doing so within six years.
A college degree increases an individual’s expected lifetime earnings by more than $1 million, improves their employability and puts a satisfying and socially valuable career within their reach. 90% of the fastest growing job categories now require a post-secondary education. California’s community colleges open access policies open the doors of higher learning to millions of students who would otherwise be left out. And industrious Californians have used this opportunity well: in great part thanks to its highly educated workforce, California has become a leader which other states look to for innovative technology, solutions to environmental problems, arts and culture.
In the current economic climate, it would be comforting to know that we still have this ace up our sleeve; but unfortunately our competitive advantage is vanishing. Think tanks estimate that California needs about 55-60 percent of our population college educated to compete economically with other states and nations in 2025. We expect to be at about 43 percent – millions of degrees less than we need to even meet our own requirements for skilled workers. Our fastest growing population is young and Hispanic – also the ethnic group with the worst educational attainment disparities.
Graduates from our 110 community colleges could be a big part of the solution, using their skills and knowledge to repower our economy. In this context the fact that student success rates are so is very troubling – we simply can’t afford for so many community college students to fall through the cracks.
One simple thing that we could do to help more students succeed is get them to study more. It’s well known that community college fees are low – but less well known that fees comprise only about 5% of the total cost of attendance. So to make ends meet, most community college student’s work. A recent CALPIRG survey found that students worked an average of 23 hours per week, leaving themselves too little time to focus on academics. This is no small problem when 3 out of 5 community college students are underprepared for college and need remediation. They have to focus on academics if they are to succeed.
At the same time, despite the fact that many have low incomes and great financial need, community college students in California apply for financial aid in lower numbers than students in other states, leaving as much as $220 million in federal aid on the table. CALPIRG’s study found that many community college students don’t understand the basics of financial aid; those students who knew the least about financial aid were also the least likely to have applied for it.
Of course, community college students face many challenges in getting to graduation, but doing without student aid for which they are eligible shouldn’t be one of them. Financial aid offices need to make sure that they are getting the basic facts about financial aid to all students, in a format that they can understand. But we all need to realize how much of a stake we hold in the success of today’s college students: if we don’t invest in the wonderful public colleges and universities we have in California – and the financial aid programs which support the students in them – we’re jeopardizing our ability to recover from this recession and the future prosperity of our state.