Tom Epstein: Community Colleges

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Community colleges serve a vital role in California’s educational system and Tom Epstein says that extensive financial benefits mean there’s never been a better time to enroll.

In my eight years on community college boards, I’ve met hundreds of students who overcame huge challenges to stay in school and complete their studies. Many juggled jobs, family obligations, health issues and poverty.

A majority are people of color who face bigotry and structural racism on a daily basis. Their ability to succeed despite these obstacles is both humbling and inspirational.

Staying in school became even more difficult since Covid struck.  Community colleges lost 300,000 students, most of whom were nonwhite and low income. Leaving college has significant negative consequences. Those with degrees earn much more over their lifetimes than those with no higher education credential.

Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to enroll in a community college. Thanks to Governor Newsom and the Legislature, the state budget enacted in July provides far more funding to support students than ever before.

About half of students pay no tuition and grants are available to be spent on books, transportation, child care and other expenses.  New funding supports students’ basic needs such as food, housing and mental health, as well as specialized counseling programs for disadvantaged students. The budget also increases access to online courses, devices, and broadband for students who have difficulty attending classes in person.

Complementing this funding, equity-driven reforms enacted in recent years eliminate remedial classes, provide clearer pathways to degrees, and more help transferring to a state university. New regulations also grant more academic credits for prior learning in the workforce, military, and correctional facilities.

Eloy Oakley, the former chancellor of the community colleges, often said the system accepts “the top 100% of California students.” That truth is the foundation of the colleges’ mission to provide an affordable, quality education for everyone, regardless of their past academic achievement.

Fall classes for most Community Colleges begin as soon as next week. There’s still time for students of any age to register for classes and change their lives for the better.

With a Perspective, I’m Tom Epstein.

Tom Epstein serves on two community college boards. He lives in the East Bay.