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So Goes the Nation: Why Getting Higher Education Right in California Matters

California's home to the largest system of public colleges in the country, which makes it a key player in national college completion goals.

As the first in my family to graduate from college, I know first-hand how life changing the opportunity can be. I grew up in a gritty part of Los Angeles with my mom who only had a sixth grade education, worked as a seamstress, and lived paycheck to paycheck. She knew that if I got an education my path would be better. And it has been.

My story is not unique and many of you share it. College has prepared us for better jobs and opened doors not available to those with a high school diploma or less. It has allowed many of us to succeed beyond our parents’ own expectations. And yet today our country is on track to produce a generation of young people less educated than we are. I find that unacceptable, un-American and against a core value that our children will be better off.

Shortly after his election, President Obama set a goal that by 2020, America should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Currently, the U.S. ranks 10th in the world in the number of young adults with a degree, and our position continues to slip. There's also an old saying, "As California goes, so goes the country." California's sheer size –it's home to the largest system of public higher education in the country—makes it a key player in the nation's ability to achieve its college completion goals.

As executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity—the only independent organization in the nation solely focused on influencing budget and policy solutions so that students have a greater chance of going to college and graduating—I can tell you that while the state's higher education system has plenty of challenges, there are also some real innovations happening here that can serve as models for the rest of the country.

First, the challenges: Our community colleges serve over 2 million students annually at 112 campuses. Unfortunately, only 3 in 10 degree seeking community college students in the state earn a certificate, transfer to a four-year university or get a degree after six years, and the numbers are worse for black and Latino students. And, like other states, California's slow economic recovery and budget woes have meant over $2 billion in cuts to higher education last year alone and half a million otherwise qualified students turned away.

Nobody can argue that increased investment is not necessary, but our students can't wait for better budget times. Thankfully last year, the State Legislature convened the Student Success Task Force, and their recommendations, and subsequent legislation, SB 1456- The Student Success Act of 2012, leave no one out of the accountability equation for student success. The recommendations call on students to be more deliberate in their enrollment, call on institutions to remove barriers to student success and provide better student support, and call on the state to align policy and budget priorities that favor both access and completion equally.

California's Student Success Act, which awaits the Governor's signature, establishes policies to ensure all students receive orientation, create an education plan, and declare a course of study to help students reach their goals. Basically, it starts them off right. With a growing number of first-time college goers, this upfront support is critical to success.

Many community colleges are also trying new strategies to make student success a reality. Faced with low rates of retention and chronically poor performance on math and English assessment tests, Los Angeles Trade Technical College developed the L.A. Trade Bridge Academy, which acts as a GPS for first-time students. The program provides support to students from day one with orientation where they create an educational plan, enroll in courses, and access financial aid and other campus resources.

Students are able to take a pre-test to determine their placement in math and English courses, with the option to enroll in refresher courses to help them prepare for the official placement test. And, after only two years of implementation, results show student enrollment in a second term is up by 10 percent and refresher courses have increased the number of students successfully completing math or English courses by 11 percent.

College completion is critical to our nation's future. Retiring baby boomers leave large gaps in the workforce and our knowledge-based economy requires higher levels of education. Revenues generated from college graduates support critical state services and higher rates of employment for college graduates buffer economic downturns. In California, our college graduates earn $1.3 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. Failing to improve college completion consigns millions to an on-going cycle of poverty and spells economic disaster for our nation.

As education advocates, we must continue to work towards increasing both college access and completion for our communities, our economy, and our democracy. Most solutions are right in front of us – they are as simple as providing students with an orientation the day they set foot on campus. Budget challenges shouldn't cripple our resolve to do better and colleges like L.A. Trade Tech are giving us examples of how it can be done.

Photo via Campaign for College Opportunity

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