By Dr. George R. Boggs & Dr. Sonya Christian
California has been a leader in providing access to postsecondary education since the early 1900s with the passage of the 1907 Upward Extension Act. The development of junior and community colleges gave students—even in remote areas of our state—who couldn’t afford to leave home to enroll in a university—access to quality postsecondary education.
CA 1907 – Caminetti Bill:
The board of trustees of any city, district, union, joint union or county high school may prescribe postgraduate courses of study for the graduates of such high school, or other high schools, which courses of study shall approximate the studies prescribed in the first two years of university courses. The board of trustees of any … high school wherein the postgraduate courses of study are taught may charge tuition for pupils without the boundaries of the district wherein the courses are taught (California State Department of Education, 1928, p. 7, as cited in Witt et al., Citation 1994, p.36).
And the colleges also offered programs—not offered by the university—to prepare students for employment. It was a model for the rest of the nation. But is the model enough for today’s world?
Out of concern for the future of our state and its people, Governor Newsom has established a goal for 70% of Californians to attain a postsecondary credential by 2030. The Governor’s goal, an increase from about 56% currently, cannot be met without California’s community colleges.
Since their founding, our community colleges have been innovative and responsive in providing postsecondary education to millions of Californians, but in Spring 2020, they were faced with a serious challenge to their open access mission. Colleges were forced to close to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Colleges shifted almost overnight to classes and services online, but many students didn’t have access to computers or high-speed Internet. As colleges struggled to find ways to keep students enrolled, institutions distributed laptop computers to students and set up Internet hotspots in college parking lots. College leaders understood that access was more than just providing an open door. It meant finding ways to proactively support students.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, colleges are open once again, and enrollment is increasing. Data from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office shows that in 2022-23 enrollments grew by 4.9% compared to 2021-22 bringing the total population to 1.9 million students.
Even with this growth, we are still 15% below pre-pandemic enrollment levels; however, colleges are reporting that they are experiencing double-digit enrollment increases for Fall 2023. The question still remains: Are there potential students who still face barriers and are just not going to college because of them? Are there populations of potential students who are not being served? What do colleges in California need to do to meet the 2030 postsecondary education goal?
A “proactive access” model for helping students to succeed is not new to California’s community colleges. In particular, Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) and Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS) opened opportunities and provided support for the economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities. Financial aid programs assist students with economic barriers. Other important student support programs include Puente, Umoja, MESA, and Veterans Services.
The California Community College Chancellor’s Vision 2030 calls on the colleges to create a more general model for reaching out proactively to increase educational access, equity, and success for all Californians, to proactively bring college to current students and future learners wherever they are. Meeting current students where they are requires colleges to offer more flexible patterns of scheduling, including short-term classes as well as alternative modalities of online, hybrid and hyflex classes.
One of the complexities we face when shifting from campus-based strategies that require students to come to college to instead taking college to the future learner is ensuring that the necessary learning infrastructure is in place. Currently, our support services infrastructure is campus centric, where students come to get their educational experiences and needed support services, such as counseling, financial aid, and tutoring. When we expand our concepts for support services to include being able to reach out to serve those who are not yet students, students who are not campus-based, the universe of potential candidates scales up dramatically.
The proactive services strategy then is to identify smaller population sets in the larger universe of potential students and create support infrastructures that are customized to the needs of these identified underserved groups. Here are some examples of these smaller population sets and how colleges are developing the needed infrastructure.
Dual Enrollment: AB 288 (2015) authorizes community colleges to enter into a College and Career Access Pathways partnership with school districts to develop seamless pathways from high school to community college. In this case, much of the customized infrastructure is provided by the high school. Community Colleges develop MOUs with high schools to take college courses to high school students. High school students now have “dual citizenship” – high school and college. Although the legislation was established eight years ago, there is still much work to be done; only 14% of California’s 12th graders are in dual enrollment programs, and only 6% of 9th graders. Moreover, dual enrollment programs are not yet equitably serving our students of color.
Justice-involved Californians: Californian legislation to improve access to education for those who are currently or formerly incarcerated includes SB 1391 (2014) and AB 417 (2021). The infrastructure is provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR); colleges enter into an agreement with CDCR and bring college courses to incarcerated individuals, our Rising Scholars. Research studies have shown that increased opportunities for education can dramatically reduce recidivism.
A population that has not yet found college is the 6.8 million who have a high school diploma but no college credential. This group is disproportionately likely to be low-income and to struggle with finding gainful employment. How do we build an infrastructure for this population to be able to take college to them? A potential solution is to create partnerships, like the partnerships with high schools and CDCR, with worker-represented organizations, employers, and/or Community-based Organizations. These organizations represent workers or have access to workers and are well placed to serve as intermediaries between the workers and the colleges. The time is now to pursue these strategies both at the local level with colleges taking the lead and at the state level with the Chancellor’s Office.
In the 1990s the development of the Learning Paradigm in California began a national conversation about the need for colleges to take responsibility for the learning and success of their students. Major foundations began to support programs to improve community college completion rates. Achieving the Dream was founded with foundation support in 2004 to assist community colleges to improve completion rates and to close racial achievement gaps. The increased focus on student success is positive, but we must not lose sight of the need to emphasize access—and we can’t be satisfied by saying our doors are open. We need to take our colleges to the populations who need them.
Our colleges faced unprecedented challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of our campuses, but our people responded quickly with creativity and innovation, moving educational programs and services online. Concern about vulnerable populations led colleges to distribute laptops and to establish Internet hotspots in parking lots. That same creativity and innovation is urgently needed now if we are to reach out to new and underserved populations to meet California’s 2030 education goal. We are confident that our colleges can meet the challenge.
Dr. George R. Boggs
President & CEO Emeritus American Association of Community Colleges
& Superintendent/President Emeritus, Palomar College