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Innovative community colleges will strengthen the middle class

By Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Feb 28, 2018

There is a troubling divide in the world of work today that threatens our hopes of strengthening the middle class. Millions of Americans are marginalized because they are struggling to tread water at the workplace, stranded without the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing economy.

I know this firsthand. Growing up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood during a time of rising crime and dwindling job opportunities, the expectations of going to college for children from a Mexican-American family like mine were between slim and none. But I found my opportunity at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, setting me on the path to where I am today — Chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

I am devoted to preserving this path for others. At the California Community Colleges system — and, indeed, at community colleges throughout our country — we’re taking action. Serving more than two million students each year, the California Community Colleges system is not only the largest provider of workforce training and education in our state, but in the entire country.

We know that our state’s emerging technologies require a workforce equipped with advanced training, which is why we partner with industry and labor to create innovative skills-building initiatives such as the Strong Workforce Program, an annual state investment of $200 million to support and expand career education efforts.

It is why we are implementing Vision for Success, a new program aimed at increasing by at least 20 percent the number of students annually who secure degrees, credentials, certificates, or specific skills that prepare them for good paying jobs in an unforgiving economy.

We’re taking an innovative approach to education because we know that relying on past solutions is not an option.

And it is why we are pushing forward with a new, entirely online, community college that will serve some of the more than 2.5 million working adults in California between the ages of 24 and 35 who have no college credentials and don’t have the ability to enroll at a brick-and-mortar campus. These are people who work hard to support their families but find themselves stranded in an economy which increasingly demands college credentials.

That’s why our proposed competency-based, online college will break down higher education barriers that limit learning for far too many in our state’s diverse population. As part of this effort, we’re developing short-term credential and certification programs in collaboration with labor, business, industry, and community partners that provide credit for prior learning and demonstrated mastery. To accommodate work and family demands, students are offered flexible schedules and will be fully supported with tutoring, tech support, coaching, and financial aid.

We’re taking an innovative approach to education because we know that relying on past solutions is not an option. Stranded workers, who historically have been marginalized by traditional education systems, must be given an equal opportunity to put themselves on a path toward greater prosperity. California community colleges are the most affordable option for a higher education anywhere in the country. We are the great equalizer, offering anyone, regardless of their background, the opportunity to secure the knowledge, training, and skills to become firmly ensconced in America’s middle class. And students who secure a degree or certificate from a California community college nearly double their earnings within three years.

Our dynamic economy cannot afford a stagnant education system. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates our state will face a shortage of one million college and certificate degree holders needed to fuel our workforce by 2025, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that occupations requiring an associate’s degree will have grown by over eight percent from 2014 to 2024.

Workers cannot regularly reach the middle class without continued, high-quality training, and the California economy cannot reach its potential without trained workers. That’s why, as Chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, my goal is simple: to make sure Americans from all backgrounds have an equitable opportunity to access the education and training needed to realize their American Dream, just as I did.

About the author:

Eloy Ortiz Oakley has served as Chancellor for the California Community Colleges since December of 2016 after leading the Long Beach Community College District for nearly a decade. Oakley also sits on the University of California Board of Regents, and President Obama recognized him as a White House Champion of Change for Oakley’s leadership in the national college promise movement.