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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Community Colleges Too Crucial to Be Shortchanged

May 28, 2000|ROBERT M. HERTZBERG | Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) is speaker of the California Assembly

Question: What do Dustin Hoffman, Ed Masry (Erin Brockovich's lawyer) and Paul Orfalea (Kinko's Inc. founder) have in common?

Answer: They are all California community college graduates.

Dustin Hoffman, once a lost young man with a weak academic record, enrolled at Santa Monica College as a last resort. "I had no idea what Santa Monica College was," he said. "I thought it was a place for losers. But without it, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have become an actor."

These are just a few of the success stories from California's community colleges. With 107 colleges and more than 1.4 million students, California's system of community colleges is the largest higher education institution in the world. A majority of its students are members of minority groups, almost all hold down jobs and a large proportion is poor. Still, every year more than 70,000 transfer from California community colleges to four-year colleges.

More than two-thirds of these transfer students go on to graduate. Their academic record at the University of California is as good as the record of those who enter as freshmen. While many students want four-year academic degrees, the overwhelming majority are there to prepare for the immediate world of work.

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Over the past 10 years this world has changed radically. The Assembly, recognizing the significance of the changes new technology has brought to the workplace, is moving to increase our investment in the community colleges that train our work force. Because our ongoing "economic miracle" is directly related to information technology, a major structural change has taken place in the way we do business. This is what we mean when we talk about the "new economy."

But we need to keep in mind that the new economy isn't only the world of Silicon Valley innovators and entrepreneurs. It's also the world of the auto mechanic who works on cars with more computing power than the capsule that took Neil Armstrong to the moon. It's also the world of the farmer who uses satellite mapping to grow better crops and the world of the multimedia technician who helps inform and entertain people around the globe.

The technological revolution in the world of work has made many traditional occupations high-tech and high cost. It is a factor in the extreme shortage of trained nurses we are seeing. Yet, in an intensive care unit, the lives of patients literally hang on the digital fluency of the nursing staff. The new high-tech equipment they use not only increases the patient's medical bill--it also increases the costs for our community colleges to train and retrain nurses.

If we are to be on the side of the new economy--making sure that its promise reaches every Californian--we must supply these students with the tools they need to help them thrive in our increasingly complex and technical world of work.

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But we still believe we can provide college education for less than kindergarten prices. According to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the state gives $2,400 less per student to community colleges than to K-12 students. Funding for our community colleges is also far below that of California State University and UC. It is also $2,300 below the national average for community colleges.

Both Democrat and Republican members of the Assembly are supporting a $300-million increase in the state's education budget for community colleges to help redress this imbalance. These funds are needed to increase the number of degrees granted and to increase the number of successful transfers.

We also need to strengthen our community colleges because for Californians of all ages they are the true classroom of the new economy. In a recent visit to Valley College, I talked with students and visited several classes--one in basic computer skills, another in computer-assisted drafting and yet another introducing students to the Internet. These are the classrooms that give the student who is adrift a second chance, the single mother the ability to return to meaningful work and the laid-off worker the high-tech retraining he needs to get a job.

In embracing the new economy, we must never forget our fundamental values. Although there are more billionaires than ever, there are still far too may Californians living in poverty.

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Our community colleges are a powerful vehicle for social justice. They are a way out of the crushing cycle of poverty--for nonnative speakers, those without high school diplomas and those with high school diplomas not ready for university classes.

California's economy is thriving; our community colleges are limping. It's time to invest in and invigorate them.

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