Providing Opportunities for Upward Mobility to Those Down the Totem Pole

Michael B. Reiner

“California dreaming” is a theme in American folklore. California’s Upward-Mobility Machine (David Leonhardt, The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2015), discussed how educational opportunities in the Golden State provide a catalyst for economic empowerment. “The big challenge for American higher education,” said the chancellor at the UC Irvine, “is that it has to be a gateway through which talented young people can thrive, regardless of their background.”

In this regard, California is a national leader. As the College Access Index indicateda measure of economic diversity at institutions of higher education, six of the top seven spots belong to UC campuses. Providing opportunities for individuals of diverse socio-economic backgrounds to enhance their lives through higher education is part of the American dream, and California dreaming is legendary.

However, in California and elsewhere, a greater need exists for students less privileged than those lucky enough to attend Berkeley, UCLA, or UC Irvine. America’s 1,200 community colleges provide the starting gate for ten million students, about half of all undergraduates, yet most never reach the finish line. Statistics on degree and certificate completion, especially for students of color or lower SES, are discouraging. While a plethora of factors contribute to this trend beyond the greater diversity of community college students, unless more is done to rectify the situation, the waste of talent and human potential is counterproductive.

A report, The Real Cost of College: Time and Credit to Degree in California Community Colleges (The Campaign for College Opportunity, July 2014) documents the “opportunity costs” over a lifetime of earnings as time to degree extends from two to six years for an associate degree, estimated at $120,000. Not only are individuals contributing less to their community’s tax base, but the cost to taxpayers of delayed completion is exorbitant.

With the need of many community college students for remedial education and an excess of credits earned, The Real Cost of College projects that if community college students were to complete an associate degree with just one less credit, the savings for the state of California would be $21 million, and an additional 7,000 seats for students could be provided in class.

These points raises a number of issues about higher education, community colleges, and “the public good” that need to be addressed:

  • How do we provide high quality education and affordability for community college students in the face of shrinking public funding?
  • How do we maintain the open access mission of community colleges in an age of increased accountability, demands for degree completion, and the push to channel students into pathways?
  • How do we deal with the failure of developmental education to develop college-ready students?

Michael B. Reiner spent 17 years as a college and university faculty member and 16 years as a community college administrator. He is currently a consultant for the California community college system.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on January 20, 2016.