Graduating community college students. Photo courtesy San Diego Community College District

By Bernie Rhinerson

At our local community colleges we call spring our “Smile Season.” In April and May, you begin to see a huge increase in the number of smiles at San Diego’s community colleges and in our continuing education program.

Why more smiles at this time of year?  Well, in April our colleges are awarding scholarships to hundreds of deserving and smiling students at scholarship awards events. And in May, “Smile Season” continues with commencements where degrees and certificates will once again be awarded to more than 7,000 smiling students in the San Diego Community College District.

But as we smile our way through April and May, it may also be time to reconsider the role and the future of community colleges in California.

Here are some powerful facts about the current role that community colleges play in California.  Did you know that:

  • California community colleges make up the largest higher education system in the nation—providing a gateway to higher education for more than 2 million students per year.
  • California community colleges offer associate degrees and short-term job training certificates in more than 175 fields.
  • Almost 51 percent of graduates of the California State University system and 29 percent of the University of California system transferred from a California community college.
Bernie Rhinerson

Here in San Diego, at City College, Mesa College, Miramar College and at our seven continuing education campuses, we are providing educational opportunities to more than 100,000 students each year. The San Diego Community College District is proud of the significant increases we have achieved in the number of students earning degrees and certificates and transferring to four-year colleges, according to a recent study titled “Changing the Lives of Our Students.”

Degree completion at San Diego’s Community Colleges has increased by 51 percent in the past three years to 3,319, and the number of associate degrees for transfer awarded has more than doubled to 1,299. The number of students transferring to a four-year college or university has also increased by 16 percent, including a 19 percent increase among African-American students, and a 41 percent increase among Latino students.

Even with these impressive numbers, there are clouds over the future of California’s community colleges. We have seen welcome increases in education funding in recent years that have translated into greater student success and more degrees awarded. But, unfortunately, many community college leaders like myself are concerned that implementing untested new programs, adding complex funding changes and delays to proven innovations will divert much needed funding from the ongoing work of California’s 114 community colleges.

California’s community colleges need to continue to evolve proven innovations that support student success. Examples include additional expansions in our dual enrollment programs that are now offering thousands of high school students a head start on college credits and further refining remedial education requirements that can dramatically help students succeed and progress through college-level English and Math courses.

Other innovations, such as awarding more workforce baccalaureate degrees at community colleges, show great promise for meeting the growing demands for a more educated workforce. While 22 other states have broadly expanded workforce baccalaureates, California is unfortunately stalled with a small pilot project with further expansion opposed by other segments in higher education.

Hopefully pending legislation in the form of Senate Bill 1406 to extend the sunset provision for the baccalaureate pilot project will be approved, but California needs to move more boldly in this area. This spring, Mesa College will graduate the first students in its pilot baccalaureate program, Health Information Management. Those students will immediately enter the local workforce in jobs paying in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.

To meet California’s growing demand for skilled workers, we must continue to advocate for an expansion of workforce baccalaureate degrees at community colleges.

As we continue to enjoy the smiles on our students in April and May, we also need to continue to plan the future role of community colleges within California’s system of higher education. I am hopeful that our community colleges will expand workforce education with more applied baccalaureates and locally based online education, that we will continue to support programs to make our colleges affordable, and that we will expand affordable housing and food support for our neediest students. That will be the best path toward seeing more smiles on the faces of our students in the future.

Bernie Rhinerson is executive vice president of the board of trustees of the San Diego Community College District.

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