Mesa College
Mesa College in Linda Vista now offers baccalaureate degrees in workforce demand fields. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Having been educated at the best of San Diego’s private and public schools; and having taught at every level of education, including summer camps, adult education, high school and college, I write from experience.

And I give President Biden an A++ for including free community college as part of this week’s speech before a joint session of Congress where he will unveil his American Families plan.

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The president is expected to reveal another $1.5 trillion in spending that also includes funds for child care, universal pre-kindergarten, and paid family and medical leave.

Free community college is so needed, so effective, and so long overdue that one can only wonder why former Democratic Presidents overlooked the obvious solution to much that plagues the country.

In a separate action, Sen. Bernie Sanders is also pushing the College for All Act that, if passed, would make community colleges and trade schools tuition-free for all students.

First, let’s be blunt. The best and the brightest often never complete high school or enter college. They never got the chance to even dream of their potential. They are defeated by where they live, with geography as destiny.

Lots have been written about the disparities in income, education, health care, and even food availability that exist in every state and every locale.

Enter America’s community colleges, the nearest oasis available to those most in need and most likely to succeed if given the chance.

Now is their chance. And there’s no better place to look for proof of the positive than the San Diego Community College District‘s innovative San Diego Promise, which provides qualified students with a free community college education, and offers grants to those who demonstrate financial need to offset the cost of textbooks and instructional supplies.

It ensures that no student is denied access to a high-quality education due to lack of resources. Plus, San Diego’s City College food pantry offers help to the nearly 50% of students who experience food insecurity.

Add to this SDCCD’s support to help transfer students gain guaranteed entrance to four-year institutions based high GPA performance.

And the best yet is that the district has begun offering what over 22 other states already offer — baccalaureate degrees in workforce demand fields. 

A pilot program allowing 15 California community colleges — including San Diego Mesa College — to offer bachelor’s degrees in critical workforce areas, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, was extended through July of 2026.

Now an updated version, Assembly Bill 927, would eliminate that 2026 sunset date and allow for the number of such programs to expand.

The best argument for passage of this act is the proven success of the program:

“Approximately 60% of students in the baccalaureate program come from communities of color and students are paying less than $11,000 in tuition and fees for their four-year degrees, a fraction of what it would cost them at private institutions or public colleges and universities,” according to the district. “On average, students who graduated in 2018 were earning a salary $28,000 higher than their salary prior to enrolling in their bachelor’s degree program.”

This is success. And it is available to those most in need — all over the country — in a time of great political, economic, cultural and historical peril.

As Doug Sosnik, political director for former President Bill Clinton, explained when he released a presentation in April, “the current period of turmoil and chaos that began in the early 2000s will likely continue throughout this decade.”

The transition from a 20th-century top-down industrial economy to a 21st-century digital and global one could be a what some have dubbed a “great gate of history.”  One to rival FDR’s New Deal.

President Biden gets an A++ for choosing the right gate, going big and going bold.

Colleen O’Connor is a retired college professor and native San Diegan.