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A Crisis of Our Time: Standing Up for Education

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Hundreds of students recently gathered on the El Camino College Compton Center (formerly Compton College), fed up with ongoing cuts to community colleges and the ever-rising fees that make the cost of an education out of reach for too many.

These students gathered not in protest, but in unity. They joined hands in a line that stretched across the campus, providing a prelude to what will be happening throughout the state in just a couple of days.

The happening at Compton was, according to one administrator, unlike anything he had ever seen at the college: students joining hands for one common purpose, cheering in elation for their college and education. It exemplifies a tipping point for colleges throughout the state.

Community colleges -- and public higher education in general -- find themselves in a time of uncertainty. And for the nearly 3 million students enrolled in California's community colleges, the resultant pain is becoming palpable. There has perhaps never been a more critical time for someone -- all of us, really -- to stand up for our students and tell the world how important it is that we ensure tomorrow's leaders and workforce have our support.

This Sunday, that time will come.

On April 17, Californians will stand hand-in-hand throughout the state as part of Hands Across California, all in support of California's community colleges and its students, which make up nearly a quarter of all college students in America.

The event will recall Hands Across America, which brought nearly 6.5 million Americans together in 1986 to raise money and awareness in support of hunger and homelessness issues. Today, 25 years later, we're working with Ken Kragen, the very many who made Hands Across America a reality, to do the same for California Community Colleges, which enroll the state's lowest-income students.

Full-time students have an annual median income of $16,223, with one-fourth having incomes of less than $5,544 per year. Already, nearly half of them have no way to pay for college, and almost 90 percent need some sort of financial aid.

Our students are facing a crisis of affordability that will only worsen for California's most vulnerable students as the cost of an education continues to climb.

Hands Across California will strive to address this issue. It will be unprecedented in higher education and serve two purposes -- raising awareness of the critical need of today's college students in a time when economic instability is pushing many beyond the reach of an education, and raising dollars that will forever support needy students through scholarships.

Net proceeds from Hands Across California will support the California Community Colleges Scholarship Endowment. Thanks to a pledge from The Bernard Osher Foundation -- which made history with its commitment to the California Community College system - proceeds will benefit from a 50 percent match.

For students like Stephen, who attends Santa Monica College in Los Angeles, a college education isn't something that should be taken for granted. The first in his family to attend college, he was raised in a family of six and knew days when they didn't have much to eat. His education was the way out of this cycle, ensuring a better life and brighter future. And thanks to scholarships from the very endowment that will benefit from Hands Across California, the completion of his education was made a reality.

Ensuring more students like Stephen can get a college education isn't just important to the students themselves. It's something we as a society should care about deeply, because it impacts our future as well.

Students receiving a degree or certificate from a Community College see an 86 percent increase in their wages, from $25,600 to $45,571, three years after earning their degree. A 2 percent increase in the share of the population with an associate's degree, combined with a 1 percent increase in the share with a bachelor's degree, results in $20 billion in additional economic input, $1.2 billion more in state and local tax revenues annually, and 174,000 new jobs.

Already, people of all interests and backgrounds are taking a stand for our community college students. Former President Bill Clinton has lent his support, calling community colleges "one of the most successful public entities in the country."

Celebrities like Quincy Jones are also supporting the effort. Jones notes that the promise of an education means all the difference for so many students, claiming "it can mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, between failure and success, between hopelessness and promise. An education opens doors that would not otherwise be accessible."

Celebrities and politicians aren't alone in their support of California Community College students. Hands Across California is made possible through the partnership of major California corporations AT&T, Clear Channel, Southern California Edison, UPS and Yahoo!.

The diverse array of business and political interests, coupled with the celebrity backing of many of today's entertainers, many of whom directly benefited from a California Community College, speak to the impact that the largest system of higher education has on our society. And it underscores the fact that it takes all of us to make a difference in the education of our state and nation's future workforce.

People throughout the nation can support the cause. If you're in California, stand with us on April 17, or volunteer for the event. The hand-holding will commence at 2 p.m., but get to your local community college or other meeting point by 1:30 (see www.HandsAcrossCalifornia.org for route details).

If you are unable to join us, lend your support by making scholarships available to students. By simply texting the word HANDS to 27722, you will contribute $10 to the cause.

The promise of a better tomorrow is becoming more and more out of reach. It's reaching a tipping point in California -- and America -- and it's time we as a society take a stand for our future. We hope you'll take a stand with us through Hands Across California.

Additional background:California's Community Colleges were created to provide affordable and accessible educational opportunities for all Californians. Today, the system serves nearly 3 million students each year, enrolls three out of every ten Californians age 18-24, educates the majority of the state's workforce, and provides a stepping-stone for students on the pathway to four-year and graduate degrees. California Community Colleges educate 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical technicians. In addition, 70 percent of the nurses in California received their education from community colleges.

Hands Across California is organized by the Foundation for California Community Colleges. Learn more at www.HandsAcrossCalifornia.org.