Why community colleges need California’s support


In the throes of this novel coronavirus crisis, as front-line health-care workers do their heroic work and state leaders do their best to help us defend our health, I look forward to a post-coronavirus future for our state and its 2.1 million community college students.

The state’s 115 community colleges, with their nimble workforce education programs and quality transfer pathways, will be crucial in helping California navigate the new economy after this crisis. While we are forward-looking, however, we cannot ignore lessons from the past.

A little over a decade ago, a recession slammed into our country with startling force, sending us all into survival mode. To get to a place of recovery, cuts were made across the board that were felt deeply in education, health care, social services and elsewhere — for years.

We at the community colleges remember it well — being forced to turn a growing student population away as classes were cut. Summer school offerings were slashed or eliminated. Students were unable to take the courses needed to earn a workforce credential or obtain required transfer units to continue toward a bachelor’s degree.

Adult learners looking to improve skills to find better employment and meet evolving workforce needs could not get the classes they required. High school graduates couldn’t get classes either, so many just didn’t come. Then came the struggle to regain pre-recession funding levels, which to this day remain inadequate.

It’s hard to imagine what the coronavirus response might have looked like in California without community colleges, which are the main engines of social and economic mobility for underserved residents. Our colleges are meeting the moment.

Many of the front-line workers in our communities come out of these colleges.

One of the system’s offerings, the Nursing and Allied Health Program, continues to make significant contributions in response to the coronavirus pandemic — in the form of trained nurses and medical workers, as well as donated ventilators, gloves, masks, goggles, gowns and shoe covers. Many of the ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) are being supplied to hospitals from college programs throughout the state.

Our colleges with advanced manufacturing programs that include 3D printers can quickly be turned into a space to produce more PPE. Students have offered to hand-sew masks if needed. The list goes on.

As we get through this crisis — and we will — cuts will come, and they will be necessary.

But cuts to investment in our community college system and its students should be carefully considered so the reductions do not undermine the state’s recovery as they did a decade ago.

The fallout of that recession devastated the community college system.

A 2013 Public Policy Institute of California report found it sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts from 2007-08 to 2011-12. Those cuts translated into a drastic decline in access — cutting out upwards of 600,000 students from higher education. That, in turn, translated directly into a huge hit on the state’s workforce at a time when the workforce shortage now upon us was looming.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom put it in a recent news conference, our community colleges are the backbone of our workforce training in California. Today, 70% of first responders — firefighters, police, paramedics, nurses, medical technicians and other essential workers — receive training at community colleges. They are out there now, working, helping, fighting and saving lives. Many others stand ready to leave our colleges and help as soon as they get licensing approval to do so.

Community colleges must be a priority in upcoming state budget planning for the health and welfare of California. The roles that community colleges play in our communities and our state are indispensable. The crisis will hit the most vulnerable workers the hardest, and our colleges are a lifeline for these workers.

Adjustments will have to be made to the governor’s proposed budget and our colleges will need to adapt. As leaders begin to forecast the devastation from coronavirus and make decisions on cutting, spending and investments, we urge a look back at what happened to community colleges in the aftermath of the Great Recession and a look at how critical they are in today’s crisis response.

Let the chilling reality of the last recession and cuts that were made to community colleges serve as a warning.

The domino effect that results from rationing education would be the wrong approach. Our community colleges’ response to the coronavirus crisis is proof.

Oakley is chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

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