05/08/2013 02:46 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

600,000 Fewer Students at California's Community Colleges

This spring the Los Angeles Times ran what I consider to be a tragic story out of California. The headline? "Community College Enrollment at 20-Year Low."

The tragedy lies in the reason why enrollment is so low. It's not because Californians don't see the value of college. It's not because there's a lack of demand for higher education. No, enrollment is at a 20-year low due to massive budget cuts. These cuts mean hundreds of thousands of students are unable to access college, according to the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Here is a crucial fact. Low-income students are already underrepresented in higher education. Their best bet is often the community college, with the most affordable tuition offerings. But massive budget cuts and the narrowing of course offerings may mean that even this most affordable option is at risk. PPIC recently issued a sobering report entitled "The Impact of Budget Cuts on California's Community Colleges." The report indicates that new revenues and a state aid increase are unlikely to make up for years of big cuts. Hard choices lie ahead.

Policymakers must consider access as they grapple with tough budget decisions - as they grapple with the future of higher education. Student success and completion goals have been at the top of policymakers' agenda across the country - and they should be in California.
But in our quest for success, we cannot forget access. California's community colleges are the nation's largest system of public higher education. Their graduates are their state's future lab bench workers, auto mechanics, and nurses. They can transfer and go on to be teachers, engineers, and researchers.
California and our country need these graduates. Unfortunately, the future of thousands of potential California college students is already at risk. The Public Policy Institute of California found:

In the Great Recession and its aftermath, the community college system sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts between 2007-08 and 2011-12. These cuts are far larger than those made during past economic downturns in the state. The colleges responded by reducing staff, most notably among instructors. Courses were cut and class sizes increased. Academic year course offerings fell 21 percent.

These cutbacks led in turn to a decline in access for students. Had enrollment rates remained at 2008-09 levels, the community college system would today be serving an additional 600,000 students. The sharpest declines in enrollment are among returning students--those returning to school after an absence--and first-time students. Enrollment of first-time students declined by 5 percent--even as the number of California high school graduates increased by 9 percent.

That number is staggering to me. The 600,000 Californians who were unable to access their community college means 600,000 students did not have access to necessary education and training programs. It means 600,000 who likely could not access good jobs; jobs that require a degree, certificate or training. Such a scenario is devastating not only for the student, but also the economy.

As the first in my family to attend college, I know how crucial it is to have access to affordable, high quality options of higher education - options like our nation's community colleges. I know that access to education can transform lives - it did mine.

I am also a former president of a California community college. I saw the greatness of the community college system first hand. I knew the proud history of one of the most affordable, high-quality systems of higher education in our country. Today, California's system - and its reputation for greatness - is at risk. It is devastating to hear stories of the budget cuts and their impact from my friends and former colleagues in California. It is important to remember that stories of percentage cuts and dollars lost are also stories of real people, with lives forever changed.

Every year, America's community colleges transform lives, provide career opportunities, and rebuild a struggling economy. The state of California only can benefit from a well-educated workforce that can fill skilled job openings.

California demonstrates just how important it is to protect and preserve state and local funding for community colleges. I am grateful that in Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley, our legislature, and our county officials took a different approach in the recession, choosing not to hit Maryland's community colleges with draconian cuts. Rather, they supported revenue enhancements, spread budget cuts across state and county agencies to lessen the pain for any one area, and supported efforts to limit tuition increases.

Their investment is sure to yield real benefits for our state in the years ahead, with more students accessing higher education, meeting our state's ambitious completion goal of 55 percent of Marylanders holding a degree by 2025 and filling Maryland's skilled jobs in fields like biotechnology, cybersecurity, and health care.

My hope for California? I know many in the state are ready to tackle the big issues. It is crucial that policymakers, administrators, educators and other stakeholders have the collective courage to revisit California's Master Plan for education, to look at fee structures and funding mechanisms. It's crucial that the 600,000 students shut out of college today are only temporarily displaced and that they find a place in college in the future. Too much is at stake not to do so.