Community colleges are more than schools, they are engines of economic opportunity. Consider that community college students can earn the credentials needed to access 15.7 million well-paying jobs around the nation. These are all jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. But just when that engine should be turning at full speed, it is stalled in San Francisco.
The City College of San Francisco is in need of a jump. Slowed by mismanagement, misunderstandings, and misallocations of funds, CCSF requires a major tune-up to meet the current moment: a time in which the city is seeing unprecedented unemployment, business closures, and financial uncertainty. San Francisco’s residents, communities, and corporations need a community college system that not only functions but thrives.
A CRUCIAL STEPPING STONE
My mom used her community college education in the same way so many others do — as a means for reaching her potential in a cost-effective, flexible way. Raised by a single parent and often thrust into the role of caretaker for her three other siblings, my mom didn’t have the luxury of going straight to a private, four-year school. Thanks to public investment and community support, she nevertheless was able to start her climb up the ladder of social mobility at Portland Community College (PCC). Her year at PCC accelerated her pursuit of higher education while also not draining her bank account. With credits earned and money saved, my mom was able to transfer to the University of Oregon, where she went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree.
My mom’s story is inspiring, but it is not unique. Community colleges are responsible for giving a wide range of Americans the keys to unlocking their potential. This is especially true in the case of college students of color, “about half of whom start their postsecondary education at community colleges, and low-income college students, 44 percent of whom start at community colleges,” according to the Aspen Institute. Those stats map onto CCSF enrollment as well. The vast majority of CCSF students are non-Caucasian, 32.5 percent are the first in their family to pursue higher education, and many come from economically disadvantaged situations.
Providing CCSF students with the education they need and deserve is paramount to our city’s future. But jumping the school’s engine requires a lot of energy. The school recently discovered a 58 percent drop in its unrestricted general fund, resulting in a “material weakness” in the school’s financial condition. What’s more, it’s likely the school will miss out on $27 million in state support due to the coronavirus.
The wheels are coming off for other reasons, too. Case in point: The CCSF Board of Trustees recently voted to move out of its Fort Mason campus, which served the creative needs of residents across the city. This closure rightfully resulted in protests from residents who wondered what has to happen to restore CCSF to its place as an engine of community well-being, economic mobility, and personal fulfillment.
Revitalizing CCSF must start with reconceptualizing how the school fits into the Bay Area economic ecosystem. Though many Bay Area employers are experiencing downturns, some are still hiring workers trained in the skills of the future. That’s exactly where CCSF can and should be operating — coordinating with employers to design classes and certificates that directly tie into employment opportunities. Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, NC provides an example that CCSF should aspire to follow. Local employers like IBM and Lenovo provide internships to Wake Tech students and, in a sort of virtuous cycle, the school often provides continuing education for employees of those same companies.
Revitalizing CCSF must also include a reprioritization of local, state, and philanthropic funds. The current distribution of educational funds is tantamount to watering where the grass is already green: educational spending per public 4-year college student increased by more than 10 percent in the decade between 2004 and 2014, whereas spending per community college student increased by just four percent. This funding discrepancy has distributive consequences — every dollar sent to 4-year institutions is far more likely to support a student that is already several rungs up the social mobility ladder: twenty-eight percent of community college students are from the bottom socioeconomic quartile, but that rate is under 10 percent at competitive 4-year institutions.
Finally, revitalizing CCSF means reequipping the school and its students for remote learning. It should be a goal for the institution to provide every student with the digital resources they need to thrive in these turbulent times. There’s no reason the Bay Area cannot rally to make sure every CCSF student has a laptop and high-speed Internet connection — the alternative looks like selling students short of the tools they need to succeed.
CCSF is a core part of our city’s future. As an engine of social mobility, it deserves more regular maintenance and a massive tune-up. Now’s the time for repairs.
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