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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants California to get its priorities straight. Over the last three decades, the state’s investment in universities has eroded while prison spending has shot through the roof. It’s “out of whack,” says Schwarzenegger.
To remedy that, he would guarantee that no less than 10% of the state’s general fund budget go to the universities by 2014, a doubling of their current share. He also wants the deal written into the state Constitution — both to show he’s serious and to commit future governors to the plan.
Unfortunately, the governor’s higher education recovery plan does nothing to help the 110 California community colleges, which serve nearly 3 million students — nearly 70% of those in public higher education each year.
They don’t get as much attention as the University of California or the California State University systems. But more than half of the graduates from the Cal States and 30% from the UCs start out in community colleges, allowing the four-year institutions to focus more on research and upper-division course work. This saves the state and its students millions of dollars.
The community colleges also are the state’s main provider of workforce training, creating pathways into hundreds of occupations that require special training but not necessarily a four-year degree. Community colleges are the only practical option for most low-income young people, not to mention laid-off workers, returning vets and adults who need to work or raise a family while they go to school.
By expanding his higher education plans to include community colleges, Schwarzenegger would help more people expand their job opportunities, ultimately reducing the draw on social services and feeding more tax revenue back into the system.
Investing in community colleges also makes long-term sense. The generation of Californians under 35 is far less well educated than the baby boomers on the brink of retirement. And more and more jobs require degrees. According to a 2009 study, California will need to increase the number of bachelor’s degree graduates by 60,000 each year until 2025 to meet workforce demands. Increases of that magnitude can’t be achieved without the community colleges.
Yet for years we’ve been under-investing in them. Community colleges have always operated on a shoestring, getting by on a third of the funding per student of the UC system. The funding mechanism for the colleges puts them in competition with the K-12 system — always a losing prospect. The colleges also are expected to make up for the shortcomings of the public schools. More than 80% of entering community college students need to take remedial classes.
In the higher education budget crisis, it’s the community colleges that have taken the hardest hit financially. And unlike universities, which can manage their enrollment by tightening admission standards, the community colleges have to accept all who want to attend. The colleges currently serve the equivalent of 52,000 full-time students for whom they receive no state funding.
There is a flicker of light on the horizon. President Obama’s higher education plan, with a goal of 5 million more community college grads by 2020, calls for an unprecedented $12-billion federal investment in the colleges over 10 years. States will have to compete for much of that money. If California develops a credible plan to improve transfer and graduation rates, it might qualify for some of it. But if California gets those funds, it will still need to increase its share.
Of course, none of our higher education institutions, including the universities, deserves a blank check. The state should expect the community colleges to improve their dismal transfer and graduation rates. Only a quarter to one-third of students who want to get a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year college do. At minimum, we need to double those numbers.
Schwarzenegger — a former community college student himself — has vowed not to cut funding for the colleges any further. But that’s not enough. We need to put all of our college students on the path to success, not just the 30% at our four-year schools.
Camille Esch is director of the California Education Program at the New America Foundation. Christopher Cabaldon leads the foundation’s Blueprint for Community College Student Success Project.