For higher education leaders—particularly those in community colleges—there is much to be optimistic about in President Joe Biden’s “Plan for Education Beyond High School.” The plan is designed to make postsecondary education more accessible and more affordable in order to help millions of Americans obtain the skills and training needed to secure living-wage jobs and help rebuild the American middle class.
In order to accomplish its lofty goals, one of the plan’s key principles is investing in the nation’s public community colleges. This investment is necessary in order to expand free tuition programs to more hard-working students, bolster workforce training programs and apprenticeships, and provide enhanced support services to help improve student success and degree attainment rates.
Such an investment is vital after years of disinvestment in higher education at the state level. According to Pew Research, higher education funding still has not returned to its pre-recession level, putting more of a financial burden on students and exacerbating the student debt crisis (California is one of only seven states where funding has returned to pre-recession levels).
Due to their mission of open access education for all, community colleges serve a student population that is both disproportionately low-income and from traditionally underserved backgrounds. Because of this, community colleges play an important role in economic mobility, as they are often the choice for first-generation college students. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 37 percent of community college students have family earnings of less than $20,000 per year.
Community college students are also far more likely to be parents, more likely to be working while attending college, and more likely to enroll in classes only part time than are their peers at four-year universities. If we are serious about creating a more equitable society, investing in community colleges is perhaps the best way to accomplish this goal.
While the students who attend them are the biggest and most obvious beneficiaries of community colleges, they play an important role in the communities they serve and provide a boost to regional economies. Locally, a recent report conducted by the labor market data company Emsi found that San Jose – Evergreen Community College District has an annual impact of nearly $900 million added to the local economy.
In California, community colleges are responsible for training the majority of our first responders, graduating tens of thousands of nurses, EMTs, firefighters, and police officers every year. These graduates then seek careers in their home communities, where they serve on the front lines in roles that have been elevated in importance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed how many young people think about college. A recent survey by the ECMC Group indicates that teenagers now say they are less likely to attend a four-year university than they were less than one year ago, while more than half of respondents indicated that they feel they can succeed in a career with postsecondary education other than a four-year degree. Nearly a third of those surveyed said that the financial impacts of the pandemic make it less likely that they will attend a four-year university.
Because of the impact the pandemic has had on our economy and our workforce, community colleges will play an even more important role than ever in our local, regional, and national recovery as we work to rebound from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to succeed in this role, community colleges must be adequately funded.
By increasing our investment in community colleges and offering two years of college tuition free to more students, we can eliminate the financial barriers that have historically prevented many people from pursuing higher education, particularly those whom come from traditionally underserved populations and low-income backgrounds. By opening the doors of higher education to millions more Americans, we will create the highly skilled and diverse workforce needed to prosper as we progress deeper into the 21st century.
San José Spotlight columnist Dr. Byron D. Clift Breland is the chancellor of San Jose – Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]