Will Community Colleges Save California?

Ruben Lizardo
March 28, 2007

(Editor's Note: This story appeared originally on New America Media.)

Nearly every week, mainstream media outlets spotlight a new study that highlights huge disparities in educational attainment between youth and young adults in low-income neighborhoods and their more successful counterparts in more affluent communities. These stories confirm the public's belief that some students are not capable of high academic achievement and create a sense of hopelessness among families and community leaders in neighborhoods with under-performing schools.

Meanwhile, little or no attention is focused on the young women and men who, against all odds, are succeeding in their efforts to attain a degree in one of California's colleges or universities. Stories of Latinos and African Americans who graduate each year with bachelor's degrees do not typically lead nightly news programs. We don't get to learn about Noemi Soto's educational journey -- from being denied access to California State Univ. Los Angeles because of her undocumented immigrant status, to her decision to attend L.A. Trade Tech College to earn an Associate Degree in Community Planning and Economic Development, to the support she received to transfer to Occidental College where she completed a bachelor's degree in political science. Today, Noemi is the associate director of a community-based organization that is dedicated to improving economic development opportunities in South Central Los Angeles.

And we don't learn about Briana Cavanaugh, who struggled through high school as a teen mother, and sought to provide for her family through a series of low paying jobs, before making the decision to use educational benefits to enroll as a student at Laney College in Oakland where counselors have helped her navigate the complicated forms and systems needed to receive childcare, tutoring, and a Pell Grant. As a Laney College student Briana has become active in a peer support and advocacy group that works with low-income mothers and fathers. With the motto, "G.E.D.s to Ph.D.'s," the group, known as LIFETIME, and has chapters throughout the state, is providing the mentorship and support many struggling students need to complete their college education and become active in their communities.

As a consequence of the invisibility of students like Noemi and Briana, parents and community members concerned with the low educational attainment in their neighborhoods are unaware of the opportunities community colleges offer their sons and daughters to build the academic skills needed to succeed at a four-year college or university or to gain a workforce degree that will prepare them for a career. Under the onslaught of countless stories of academic failure, community leaders in our most vulnerable neighborhoods do not learn that last year alone close to 95,000 students like Noemi and Briana transferred to four-year colleges. Meanwhile, nearly 23,000 students earned associate's degrees and 38,000 earned certificates in a wide range of workforce and vocational areas.

These numbers provide compelling evidence of the powerful role community colleges can play in significantly improving educational attainment for California's youth and adults who need to acquire the skills to move up the job ladder. The fact that a majority of California's community college students are African-American, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and low income working parents, underscores the reality that the future well-being of our most vulnerable students and communities will depend on our ability to increase the capacity of community colleges to engage and serve students like Noemi and Briana.

This month we at California Tomorrow released a report which finds that California Community Colleges have created innovative workforce training programs that provide the education that Californians count on for upward social mobility. But we also found that community colleges have not received the attention and support needed to take important innovations to scale, nor to even sustain the gains made by proven programs.

In the next decade, California will not have the people with the proper training for critical jobs in education, construction, health care, advanced manufacturing, and professional and management services. Efforts to improve educational attainment in communities throughout California need to target racial/ethnic groups that will soon make up the majority of the state's workforce. In fifteen years, 70 percent of California's prime age workforce (25-54 years old) will be non-white. We found that Californians from the Latino, African-American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American communities are faring the worst when it comes to educational preparation needed to successfully participate in our highly competitive economy. Meanwhile, 55 percent (1.4 million) of the two and half million students who enrolled in California's community colleges last year came from one of these same communities.

California's community college leaders are reaching a consensus that improving academic outcomes among their most vulnerable students is their number one priority. Classroom faculty are working to develop instructional methods to more effectively teach under-prepared students. College presidents are working with businesses and community-based organizations to develop new programs to engage under-prepared youth and adults. Foundations and system leaders are providing resources needed to assist local colleges to expand the basic skills courses so many of our under-prepared students need.

We at California Tomorrow are very clear that success stories like Noemi's will have to become the norm in the very near future if California's economy is to remain competitive. Community leaders in our most challenged neighborhoods can play a powerful role in this unfinished success story. Parents of students that have not fared well in high school should encourage their sons and daughters to get the support needed to continue their education at their local community college. Community leaders should join with others who are calling on the governor and legislature to provide the leadership and resources needed to strengthen our community colleges.


Ruben Lizardo is the Director of California Tomorrow's Community College Access & Equity Initiative.


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