09/13/2012 11:32 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Why California Community Colleges Must Succeed

Imagine a state that generates a gross domestic product (GDP) that would make it the 9th largest economy in the world. A state that has seen tremendous population growth in the last 25 years, skyrocketing property values and is home to some of the best known tech firms and entertainment celebrities. Now imagine that this state has a crumbling higher education system, which was recently the topic of a Chronicle of Higher Education article. This higher education system was the envy of the nation but according to a recent report by the California Competes Council, it now needs to produce 2.3 million more adults with a post secondary credential by 2025 in order for the state to meet its workforce demand. The workhorse of this higher education system, the state's community college system, is educating over 2.5 million highly diverse students but is faced with tremendous challenges in improving its completion rate. This community college system has been the gateway to higher education for the majority of citizens but today is turning away hundreds of thousands of students. This state is not imaginary this is California. And what is happening in California community colleges is not only important to Californians but also to the entire country.

Like many other state community college systems, California's 112 community college system has been wrestling with huge demographic shifts along with a major contraction of its state support. Add to this the need to significantly improve the number of students that successfully complete a certificate, associate degree or are prepared to transfer. According to the 2012 Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC) report, 53.6 percent of community college students were completing one of these key academic milestones. With only 38 percent of adults (age 25-64) having obtained at least an associates degree, the need to scale up credential attainment is made clear. More concerning is the same data broken down by ethnicity that highlights the achievement lag that exists for Latino's and African Americans. This is troublesome for California's economy since by 2040 more than 60 percent of the workforce will be adults of color.

Why should it matter to the U.S. that California community colleges are successfully meeting this challenge? The Obama Administration has made it a goal to make the U.S. the world leader in the percentage of citizens with a college education by 2020. According to the Lumina Foundation's Goal 2025, the U.S. must increase degree attainment among adults 60 percent by 2025 in order for it to remain globally competitive. The Gates Foundation has made increasing post secondary credential attainment among working age adults a top priority. Given the sheer size of California, the large number of community college students (nearly a quarter of the total U.S. community college enrollment) and the increasing percentage of students of color enrolling in community colleges it becomes apparent that in order for the U.S. to meet the challenge of significantly increasing the number of working age adults with a post secondary credential California must be successful.

How is the California community college system responding? In typical California fashion, community college leaders where slow to respond to these challenges. Then in 2010 a major shift occurred with the introduction of Senate Bill (SB) 1143. SB 1143, authored by California State Senator Carol Liu, became a flash point for the debate on improving community college outcomes. The bill would have implemented a community college funding formula based in large part on performance. The debate over the bill resulted in compromise legislation that required the California community college system to identify ways to improve student success. In response state chancellor Jack Scott formed a 20-member Student Success Taskforce made up of faculty, administrators researches and business and civic leaders. They met for a year and published 22 recommendations. The recommendations encompassed both policy changes and regulatory changes and sparked deep divisions among many community college advocates over the impact these changes would have on California students. What is notable is that unlike many other states that have had the executive or legislative branch dictate reforms, in California the college system generated the recommendations. The recommended reforms include improving the admissions and registration process, requiring students to make academic progress in order to maintain eligibility for a fee waiver and requiring that all students be assessed, oriented and develop an education plan. One hotly debated recommendation would require that every community college publish a "score card" that shows how students are performing broken down by race and ethnicity. The California Community College Board of Governor's is acting on most of the regulatory changes. The bulk of the legislative changes are being carried in SB 1456 authored by California State Senator Alan Lowenthal.

SB 1456 is now on Governor Brown's desk. This gives the governor an opportunity to significantly improve the ability of California's community colleges to prepare a competitive workforce. Signing this bill will also go a long way to helping the U.S. reach the goals set by the President and become a more competitive nation globally.