Viewpoints: Help community college students stay on track

Each year, more than 2 million students arrive at California community colleges with a dream of a degree. But without a clear road map, too many students fall short of their goals. Less than half will complete a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year college within six years.

The community college system has been the gateway to college for my entire family. I’m a proud product of East Los Angeles College; all four of my sons, my brothers and sisters and my own mother attended a community college. Our story is similar to so many low-income families throughout the state.

As a community college student, I witnessed firsthand how hard it was to complete an associate degree. For most students, it’s not for lack of trying. I was lucky enough to have a professor who believed in me and walked me through the process, but thousands of students are struggling to find their way.

Complicating this situation, counselors at community colleges typically handle 2,000 to 3,000 students each, making it unlikely that students will get the help they need to obtain a degree. Some students will even leave community college unaware that they have qualified for a degree – and the college doesn’t have to alert them.

The good news is that there is a straightforward solution that could boost community college graduation rates. And I know it will work because similar programs are already proving successful at the California State University and the University of California systems and hundreds of colleges across the nation.

These colleges have adopted simple degree-tracking systems that enable students to build an academic program online. And the best part? Students and college officials can track progress with real time, accurate information.

Unfortunately, many of California’s 112 community colleges still lack a degree tracking system.

Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, has introduced Senate Bill 1425 that would require the California Community Colleges system to develop and administer degree tracking for all 112 campuses. This student-centered, cost-effective solution has been approved by the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly.

Already, numerous community college campuses have built their own successful degree tracking systems and did so within existing budgets. I strongly believe it is exactly the type of student support in which California should be investing. It is reasonable to expect that such a system would be made available to all college students in the next few years.

SB 1425 has broad support, including the Campaign for College Opportunity, the Southern California College Access Network, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and dozens of like-minded education reform, civil rights and business advocacy groups. The legislation is part of a national movement. The advocacy group Project Win-Win has led the way to degree tracking being put in place in nine states so far.

Improving college completion is critical to California’s future well-being. I don’t think your ZIP code should determine your destiny. Students across the state should have access to this critical tool. The Assembly has a chance to make this possible and help thousands of students reach their goals, produce the workers that our economy needs and give students at the entry level colleges in our state system the same chance that students at the highest level universities already receive.

SB 1425 deserves the vote of every legislator who believes in fair play, rewarding hard work, building our state’s workforce and helping our students achieve their dreams. I am asking them to stand and deliver on SB 1425.