Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.
Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.

    What if I told you there was a single organization designed to fight income inequality; produce the next generation of first responders, teachers, scientists and high-tech workers; fight hunger and housing insecurity; register voters; develop individuals into civil rights and social justice leaders; and serve as a social hub for entire communities?

    In the South Bay and in towns and cities across the state, community colleges do all of this and much more. With their mission of open access and education for all, community colleges are the primary point of access to higher education for many. As California Community Colleges Acting Chancellor Daisy Gonzalez recently said, these colleges are “the heart of their communities and the engines fueling California’s workforce.”

    Student success is critical to the economic health of our state. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, individual Californians and institutions of higher learning have been managing extraordinary challenges. It is imperative that we face these challenges head-on and view them not only as problems to be overcome, but as opportunities to recover with a stronger, more equitable and more resilient post-secondary system that is better aligned with the workforce needs of the state.

    For many community college students, unfortunately, the pandemic put their college and career dreams on hold. Community college students are often older than their counterparts at four-year universities, more than half work full-time jobs while attending college and many have family responsibilities as well. The pandemic created new economic and health concerns for a population that already faced food and housing insecurity in large numbers even before COVID-19, forcing many to shift their focus from preparing for the future to trying to stay afloat during uncertain times.

    As we emerge from the pandemic, it has become clear that community college students have been disproportionately affected by COVID and its economic impacts. Poverty, hunger and homelessness among students are greater problems now than they were two years ago. Because of this, we must do all we can to ensure the opportunity exists for affordable, accessible, high-quality education for all who desire it.

    But simply providing an education is not enough to ensure an equitable recovery in a post-pandemic world. We must evaluate the total cost of success for community college students, including greater investment in the Cal Grant system to directly support student financial needs, more support for student basic needs like food and housing and greater investment in the community college system to expand flexible teaching modalities in order to reach more students—particularly adult learners and those who are geographically isolated from brick-and-mortar colleges and universities.

    The traditional pipeline from high school to college does not provide enough points of entry for those who go directly into the workforce and then elect, years later, to pursue a college education. Employers and prospective students want competency based education, credit for prior learning and other programs that help colleges reach adult learners where they are and provide clear pathways to better jobs, better careers and better futures.

    Community colleges must play the primary role in ensuring that adult learners are prepared for jobs—especially as the economy continues to recover from COVID-19—but it will require creativity and innovation in designing and implementing the kinds of programs and services that this segment of the higher education population needs, according to a recent report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

    The report outlines key areas where community colleges can improve their structures and programs, including aligning short-term credentials with degree programs and bundling student support services.

    Some of this work would be made possible through the America’s College Promise initiative, a cornerstone of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. This provision, which the California Community Colleges Board of Governors recently voted unanimously to support, would include federal funds to make the first two years of college tuition-free for most community college students. This would allow states to use their own funding for other forms of financial aid such as food, housing and transportation assistance, which are often the true barriers to college access—not tuition.

    Community colleges are springboards to living-wage careers. Community colleges are key to these efforts and stand ready to get Californians back to work. With a thoughtful, intentional and equitable recovery, we can ensure that California remains a powerhouse in the global economy and a driver of social and economic mobility here at home.

    San José Spotlight columnist Dr. Byron D. Clift Breland is 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]

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