Last week, in his annual State of State address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stated: “Because our future economic well-being is so dependent on education … we can no longer afford to cut higher education.” Overall, in the context of deep and painful cuts to so many valuable programs, the governor’s budget proposal was a win for higher education.
In the current economic climate, it would be comforting to still have affordable, high-quality education, but unfortunately, our competitive advantage is vanishing. Think tanks estimate that California needs about 55 to 60 percent of our population to be college-educated to compete economies with other states and nations in 2025. We expect that about 45 percent of California’s population will complete a higher education — millions of degrees less than we need to even meet our own requirements for skilled workers.
Graduates from our 110 community colleges could be a big part of the solution, using their skills and knowledge to repower our economy. However, only 24 percent of community-college students who intend to earn an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year school are successful in doing so within six years. This is very troubling; we simply can’t afford for so many community-college students to fall through the cracks.
It’s well-known that community-college fees are low — but less well-known is the fact that fees comprise only about 5 percent of the total attendance cost. So to make ends meet, most community-college students work. A recent CalPIRG survey found that students worked an average of 23 hours per week, leaving themselves too little time to focus on academics. This is no small problem when three out of five community college students are underprepared for college and need remediation. They have to focus on academics if they are to succeed.
To buy back some of those work hours for study, community-college students need more financial aid. Part of the solution is to make sure that all students understand the basics of financial aid and have the help they need to navigate the process.
In this respect, Schwarzenegger’s budget, which suspends all new competitive Cal Grants, was troubling. These grants are already limited in number: Last year, 245,400 qualified applicants competed for 22,500 grants.
Of course, community-college students face many challenges in getting to graduation, but working so hard that they can’t make the grade academically should not be one of them. We need to make sure that students know how to apply for the aid that is available and continue to fund the programs that enable low-income students to earn degrees. Why set students up for failure when so much is riding on their success?
— Saffron Zomer
Campus Program Director, CalPIRG