Investing in community colleges does more than fuel California’s workforce


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By Daisy Gonzales, CalMatters,

Imagine a teeming nerve center focused on fighting income inequality, educating the next generation of scientists, teachers and civil rights leaders, registering voters, vaccinating people against COVID-19, battling hunger and sheltering those fleeing climate change-induced disasters.  

In cities and towns across California and online, 116 community colleges do all of this and more. They are our state’s primary point of access to higher education and have lifted millions of Californians into the middle class and beyond. They are the heart of their communities and the engines fueling California’s workforce. 

Too many community college students, however, have been forced by the pandemic to pause their college dreams and focus instead on staying afloat in uncertain times. Many of them have been thrust into roles as primary income earners in their multi-generational home, full-time employment deemed “essential.” And many more are facing hunger and homelessness, which was already much too common for our students, even before COVID-19 struck.

Since the start of the pandemic, community colleges have remained hard at work, modeling the agile learning we teach our students every day. Thanks to historic updates and investments in our colleges and students by the governor and state Legislature, vital work is well under way. 

For a system that has refused to stop fighting poverty, the greatest lessons have become clearer as our students, faculty and staff continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  As we seek to unmask these impacts, key lessons emerge. 

With poverty comes hunger, homelessness and the erosion of potential. Student financial assistance is the air that allows education to breathe. I know this closely as a former foster youth and first-generation college student. We need to own up to the total cost of success for community college students. 

While important structural reforms have been approved for the Cal Grant system this year, more changes and additional investment is needed to make it better and fairer. Assembly Bill 1456 authored by Democratic Assembly members Jose Medina of Riverside and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, would do this. The legislation deserves Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. This investment will be a critical down payment on #TotalCostOfSuccess for community college students. 

The pandemic amplified the need to expand agile teaching and learning modalities. Competency-based education and credit for prior learning will help us reach adult learners where they are and streamline clear pathways from program to career placement. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion are central to serving every Californian. We need to understand the complexities of poverty and become equity centered educators and lead anti-racist institutions.  

Partnerships with employers and regional coordination is critical to California’s recovery. Community colleges will help regional and state industry leaders innovate, incubate and lay the foundation of our future economy.  

Lastly, community colleges often serve as the final lifeline in state emergencies, housing those displaced, feeding those who are hungry, and becoming a center of coordination and basic community information. Community colleges must be supported so that they remain ready when the next emergency arrives. 

The pandemic is far from over, and we will continue to learn. As our system continues to be on the frontlines, we ask for your support to continue our mission to lift up Californians. All hands on deck are needed to unravel and counter the real and lasting effects of poverty on enrollment, retention and student success. 

Join us in the frontlines by sharing your community college success story, encourage students to enroll, ask the governor to sign AB 1456 and support continued investment in our students, especially in ways that modernize and humanize financial assistance. If we work together, we will recover and realize a future where our state remains a powerhouse in the global economy and a catalyst for social and economic mobility at home. 


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