Embrace public benefit of helping students succeed

Brian King
Brian King

President Barack Obama has just announced his College Promise Campaign – an effort to provide two free years of community college for as many deserving students as possible. The Los Rios Community College District applauds the president and is a committed and enthusiastic supporter of this campaign.

The four Los Rios colleges – American River, Cosumnes River, Folsom Lake and Sacramento City – are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Since 1965, our colleges have educated more than 1.2 million students and contributed greatly to the Sacramento region’s robust economy. This fall, more than 77,500 students are enrolled. But there are thousands more potential students out there who will not be filling our classrooms, lecture halls, music practice rooms and science labs – or anyone else’s, for that matter.

They simply cannot afford the full price of a community college education, as they juggle lives complicated by full- and part-time jobs, caring for their children, their spouses and, in some cases, their parents and in-laws.

For years, California’s political and higher education leaders have worked hard to keep down the cost of a community college education. What’s more, our state Master Plan has always envisioned free higher education, even as we have struggled with the volatility of state funding.

Today, more than 60 percent of California’s community college students are eligible for a waiver of their academic fees. For students enrolled in 15 units a semester, that fee waiver is worth $1,380 a year. But college costs so much more when you add up all the other big-ticket items, like the high cost of living, transportation and textbooks.

So why stop at helping students with only their fees? It’s time for the Sacramento region, the state and the nation to recognize the importance, value and return on investing in our community colleges and our students. It’s time to embrace the public benefit of helping more students succeed through more innovative ways.

We need to educate more students – many more students – to better meet the knowledge, know-how and skills demands of a burgeoning global economy. And these students need to earn that education without building a load of debt.

Consider these statistics for Los Rios, the second-largest community college district in the state:

▪  Nearly two-thirds of our student population – 63 percent – report that they are below the poverty level or are low income, a percentage that continues to rise.

▪  A significant majority – nearly 60 percent – comprises minorities, multi-race and other groups historically underrepresented in colleges and universities.

▪  Overall, more than 42 percent of our students are the first in their families to pursue a college education – another percentage that’s on the rise.

The focus of any debt-free student effort is not to simply enroll more students, but to graduate more students and help them succeed inside and out of the classroom.

How? By using community resources and energy to engage and embrace proven methods, including K-12 to college partnerships and pathways efforts – such as the Sacramento region’s promising Sacramento Pathways to Success, CRANE (Capital Region Academies for the Next Economy) and CAP (Capital Academies and Pathways) initiatives – dual enrollment programs for high school students, coaching and mentoring programs, and other proven approaches to student success.

It’s time to rally support for free community college fees to help all students willing to work for an associate’s degree or certificate. These are proud, hardworking students who are not asking for a handout. But they could use a step up in the form of a debt-free community college education – a sturdy ladder to help them climb out of poverty to prosperity.

Brian King is chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District.