10/26/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Nation's Largest Workforce Provider Under Siege

American schools are facing unprecedented challenges none more important than educating ever more diverse cohorts of students to greater levels of competency at a time when economies and societies are more integrated and vulnerable to global upheavals. New demographic data tell a powerful story. For the first time in U.S. history the children of Latinos and Asians account for nearly all growth in the child population. The data show that between 2000 and 2010 the number of Latino and Asian children skyrocketed by more than 5.5 million while the number of white American (non-Hispanic) babies declined by over four million. Immigrant-origin children will account for one in three children under the age of 18 by 2020. As of 2011, 23.7 percent of school-age children in the U.S. were the children of immigrants with the majority (77%) second-generation citizen children and the rest (23%) foreign-born. Approximately 10.7% of all public school students are classified as English Language Learners. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that between 1979 and 2008, the percentage of children who spoke a second language at home increased from 9% to 21%.

Given the unforgiving nature of the new global economy, it is imperative that new Americans connect with the our educational institutions charged to ease their transition to the 21st labor market. There is considerable ground for concern. When new immigrants and their children go to college, the new high-school in today's economic climate, they are statistically most likely to enroll in Community College. Once a powerful instrument of mobility and second chance, community colleges have never being more at risk than today.

Trust me, I've been there.

I arrived in California a generation ago as a determined young man escaping a savage Latin American military regime. Speaking only broken English and with a handful of dollars in my pocket I embarked on the journey at the heart of what has made America great: A society of consent cultivated by strong and noble institutions, an ethos of fair play, and above all, the freedom for native citizens and immigrants alike to build more prosperous and productive lives.

Back then I did janitorial jobs, pumped gas, and worked as a delivery boy to pay the rent while I attended California's Diablo Valley Community College at night. With a bit of grit, chutzpah, and a lot of encouragement and support from teachers and mentors who nourished my dreams, in two years I transferred to UC Berkeley, a once unimaginable possibility. My strongest memory of that time was imprinted upon seeing a sign that said simply, "Parking for Nobel Prize Winners Only."

The Danish philosopher and poet Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that life can only be understood looking backwards. Indeed, it is only in retrospect that I came to fully see the opportunities, institutions, and generosity of mentorship that rendered my life's turnaround.
Sadly, such a journey today is interrupted - if not entirely derailed - for all too many Latino and other immigrant youth. When President Obama said at the Second Presidential Debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the that he wants "to make sure that community colleges are offering slots for workers to get retrained for the jobs that are out there right now and the jobs of the future," I said Amen!

But the reality is Community Colleges are under siege. Higher Education's poor cousins are neglected, marginalized, and deeply hurting. Since 2008, $809 million, or 12 percent has been cut from the California Community College system's budget. In a 2012 survey of Community Colleges in California, 80 percent reported waiting lists and 70 percent reported reductions in both enrollment and course sections. Thousands of students are unable to take more than one course at a time, drastically diminishing their chances of graduating and crushing their dreams of ever transferring to a four-year school. As a consequence of California's budget crisis, enrollment has dropped by almost half a million students.

And more cuts are on the horizon. This is a staggering travesty for the California Community College system, the nation's largest workforce provider. It enrolls approximately 2.5 million students, a rich and diverse swath of California's new demography: 36 percent are Latino, the vast majority of them immigrants and the children of immigrants; 31 percent are White, with Asians accounting for nearly 12 percent and African Americans comprising slightly more than 7 percent.

If you are living in California and had a nurse take your blood pressure this morning, she was probably trained at a California Community College. If you called the fire or police department or had an emergency medical technician come to your aid, they too were likely trained at a California Community College. If you know a Vet now receiving GI educational benefits, chances are, she too is enrolled at a California Community College getting job training, earning an associate's degree, or studying to transfer to a four-year college.

Approximately 30 percent of students who transfer into the University of California system and more than half of students transferring into the California State University system started at a California Community College. When young Latinos, our country's fastest growing child and youth population, are accepted into a four-year college, they tend to do so via a Community College.

Never before in human history has education been as important to the future of our economy and society as it is today. Higher education is powerfully linked to virtuous cycles: from health to socio-economic mobility, from autonomy to innovation. Research shows that even marginal gains earned while enrolled in a community college are beneficial.

The community college is a uniquely American institution animated by the idea of giving all our citizens, including our new Americans, a second chance and the possibility to remake their lives; it represents the very best of our democratic promise. Diminish it and we diminish one of our greatest ideals along with the future of millions of deserving young people, as well as the future world to come.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is dean and a distinguished professor of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He was the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education and Culture at Harvard and the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at NYU.