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California's Community Colleges Are Getting Shortchanged

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Created: 22 October, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

This is an independent opinion. Have one of your own? Email it to hoa@ivn.us

California’s 116 community colleges receive a fraction of the per-student spending compared to public universities in California even though they are the largest provider of higher education and workforce training in the nation and serve far greater proportions of low-income students, first-generation students and English learners.  

Despite being an economic engine playing a critical role in the upward social mobility for students from traditionally underserved backgrounds, California community colleges’ $8,306 per-student funding level is less than half what the California State University receives and 75% lower than the University of California. Equitable? Hardly. Nearly half of students earning a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics transferred from a California community college and 29% of all UC graduates and 51% of all CSU graduates started their higher education journey at a community college

Other inequities are equally concerning:

  • California community colleges enroll about two-thirds of the state’s undergraduate students yet receive just 7% of available Cal Grant funds due to the low cost of tuition. That is simply inexcusable.
  • While, California community colleges offer the most affordable higher education option in the nation, at just $46 per unit, the total cost to attend a community college comprises much more than tuition. The cost of food, housing, transportation, and textbooks can exceed $19,000 annually. Because community college students receive so little grant aid to cover non-tuition costs, compared to university students, studies show it can be less affordable for low-income students to attend a community college than to attend a University of California campus in their region.
  • The maximum aid package for a California community college student enrolling in 15 or more units per semester is $6,700 less than the total cost of attendance. 

This is a systemic problem that extends beyond California. Nationwide, two-year institutions receive approximately $2 for every $5 that four-year colleges and universities receive, according to a recently-released Center for American Progress analysis, although nearly 40% of students attending a community college come from families making less than $50,000 annually. The study concludes, we are currently underinvesting in community colleges by $78 billion each year compared with public universities. 

A sea change is needed. Boosting per-student funding at the community college level is a must, especially for a system that in San Diego County and Imperial counties alone contributes more than $8 billion into the regional economy each year and is the most effective way of improving the socioeconomic status of its students. Indeed, economic analyses show that a community college degree holder will earn more than $400,000 over a lifetime than someone without a degree. Seven out of 10 California nurses receive their training at a California community college, as well as 8 out of 10 police officers, firefighters and EMTs.

Change should start through a more equitable distribution of Cal Grant funding — change that state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Pomona) called for in Senate Bill 291, which failed last year to become law but which Leyva promised will be re-introduced. Leyva’s legislation would have created the California Community College Student Financial Aid Program to help community college students cover non-tuition costs. Maximum grants available to students would increase by more than 300% to $6,000 annually, and an additional 300,000 community college students would become eligible for the Cal Grant program by eliminating short-sighted eligibility guidelines ignoring the fact that so many attending community college are returning students, working parents, or those looking to gain the work skills needed to boost their career prospects. 

As it stands now, the Cal Grant program’s focus on traditional-aged students is patently unfair to community college students, as significant percentages of those attending community colleges are returning students, more than 4 in 10 are 25 years old or older, and more than 1 in 5 are 35 years old or older. This lack of financial aid leads students taking fewer classes, extending the time to graduate, expanding the risk of dropping out before they can earn a degree, credential, or transfer.

As the Center for American Progress Report noted, lower revenue means community colleges have less to spend on students, and community colleges are serving students who are most in need. That’s why the San Diego Imperial Counties Community College Association, which includes the 10 community colleges in the two-county region, continues to advocate for a more equitable distribution of per-student funding.

Research is clear that higher levels of per-student spending is intimately tied to persistence and graduation rates. As long as community colleges continue to be shortchanged, inequity will persist.