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From Site Selection magazine, March 2023

Credentials Count

One credential at a time, California’s community colleges are doing their part
to raise the state’s education attainment levels and close gaps in equity.

Established in 1961, Southwestern College is one of 116 public community colleges in California and the only institute of higher education located in south San Diego County.
All photos courtesy of Southwestern College

by Adam Bruns

n January, Indiana-based Lumina Foundation released an update of its “A Stronger Nation” scorecard that tracks the share of working-age adults with degrees or other credentials of value. The national post-high school education rate among adults 25 to 64 years old reached 53.7 percent in 2021, an increase of nearly 2 percentage points since 2019 when the percentage was 51.9. 

Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of strategic impact and planning and director of the Stronger Nation project, said the gain represents the largest two-year increase the organization has seen since it started tracking the data in 2009 after issuing a call for 60% of adults to have college degrees or other high-quality credentials beyond high school by 2025 to meet labor-market demand and ensure the country’s global competitiveness.

Among the findings:

  • The percentage of people earning degrees increased across all races and ethnicities but rose the most among Hispanics and Latinos, an almost 2.5-percentage-point gain, followed by an almost 2-point increase among Black adults.
  • Among adults 25 to 34 years old, the rate of degree and short-term credential attainment is 55.9%, an increase of 2 percentage points.
  • States that experienced the largest two-year gains in attainment were Vermont (6.4 percentage points), Indiana (5.6 percentage points), and Idaho (5.4 percentage points).
  • Within the past 15 years, the proportion of adults in the United States between the ages of 25 to 64 with college degrees, certificates, or industry-recognized certifications has increased from 37.9% to 53.7%. “These gains in the share of adults with education and training after high school have come from growth in the numbers of adults earning credentials and an improved ability to measure and count quality short-term credentials such as certificates and certifications,” Lumina stated.

How Does California Measure Up?

Among adults aged 25-64, California comes in at No. 16 with 55.8% attainment, tied with Nebraska and just behind New York at 56%. Among adults aged 25-34, the state also is No. 16 in attainment at a higher 58.5%, sandwiched between the comparatively tiny states of Rhode Island and New Hampshire. (For reference, the highest attainment percentages in that younger cohort are in D.C. (80.7%), Massachusetts (68.7%) and New Jersey (64.5%), while the lowest is in California’s neighbor Nevada at 43.8%.

— Southwestern College Superintendent/ President Dr. Mark Sanchez, speaking about a new partnership   with Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, June 2022

“Our binational region represents a $250 billion dollar economy. Future jobs will require specialized skills usually obtained through a degree, certificate or credential. Therefore, for us to work together to educate our communities is critically important.”

— Southwestern College Superintendent/President Dr. Mark Sanchez, speaking about a new partnership with Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, June 2022

“With the inclusion of workforce certificates (beginning in 2014) and certifications (in 2018), California’s overall rate of educational attainment has increased by 17.1 percentage points since 2009,” Lumina Foundation reports. There’s still a hill to climb to get to 60%. But California — befitting its reputation for being out in front — is aiming higher toward an attainment goal of 70% by 2030. “To reach state goals,” says the report, “the state will not only have to maintain current rates of attainment but also significantly increase the number of people who enroll in programs and earn all types of credentials beyond high school.”

California metros — at least some of them — score much better among the nation’s 100 largest metros: With more than 1.2 million adults between ages 25 and 64 having achieved educational attainment, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara is the No. 1 metro area in the nation at 62.8%. Not far behind is No. 3 San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley at 60.5% and with a much larger cohort of nearly 2.7 million 25- to 64-year-olds with educational attainment. Among other California metro rankings are No. 29 San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad at 49.4% (1.79 million) and No. 51 Sacramento-Roseville-Folsom at 45.4% (1.25 million).

However, a significant divide reveals itself in the data, with California metros occupying four of the final six spots among those 100 large metros: No. 95 Fresno (31.6%), No. 97 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario (31%), No. 98 Stockton (28.9%) and No. 100 Bakersfield (25%).

System Stats

Population statistics show where the ground can be made up. A Hispanic population of more than 8 million (more than 38% of the state’s overall population of 20.9 million) shows an educational attainment rate of 22.6%, the lowest among any ethnicity and around one-third the attainment rate among California’s Asian or Pacific Islander population (66.3%).

California BG-one

California Community Colleges constitutes the largest system of higher education in the United States with just under 2 million students enrolled each year.

Solutions are being hatched within a network often overshadowed by the dauntingly impressive University of California system. The California Community Colleges system of 72 districts, 116 colleges and six continuing education centers constitutes the largest system of higher education in the United States with just under 2 million students enrolled each year (compared to 671,000 in the University of California and California State University systems combined, says the UC Davis School of Education). Those students represent 20% of the nation’s community college student population and one in 10 students in American higher education.

Three out of 10 Californians aged 18-24 are enrolled in a community college. Nearly one-third of University of California graduates and more than half of California State University graduates got their start at a community college and transferred. Transfer students from the California Community Colleges to the UC system currently account for 48% of UC’s bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Since 2015-2016, the number of students earning a college credential increased by 32% and the number of students earning associate degrees for transfer more than doubled, the system announced last fall.

The economic impact of the system itself was evaluated in 2021 by EMSI. Among its findings: Students who earn an associate degree from the colleges can expect approximate wages of $48,200 per year within California, approximately $11,100 more than someone with a high school diploma. Occupations that typically require workers to have an associate degree for entry have an average annual wage of almost $53,000, compared to an average annual wage of $36,100 for workers in high school-level occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Smoothing the Way

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, has recently worked on research measuring how community colleges stack up when it comes to post-graduation income and opportunities. Chief challenges are unnecessary roadblocks for transferring to four-year schools and tracking toward jobs that pay at least a living wage.

California Community Colleges has been laser-focused on access and support. “With a keen focus on equity and elevating the student voice in policy and program reform, the system has become a national leader in dismantling barriers to student access and success,” a system release stated last year as longtime Chancellor Ortiz Oakley stepped down to be replaced by current Chancellor Daisy Gonzales. “The California Community Colleges has ended flawed, high-stakes student-placement testing and became the largest college system to end required remedial education. One-year completion of transfer-level courses increased from 49% to 67% in English, and from 26% to 50% in mathematics over four years.”

While many states aim for 60% credential attainment, California is raising the bar with a goal of 70% attainment by 2030.

Five years ago the system adopted a new funding system that “supports student equity by targeting funds to districts serving low-income students and student success by providing districts with additional resources based on students’ successful outcomes. Also in that year, the system established Calbright, an online college helping working learners get the skills and credentials needed to move ahead in the economy.”

In September 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1705, which, said Gonzales, “moves the California Community Colleges one step closer to closing equity gaps by ensuring students are enrolled by default in transfer-level courses – and provided the tools they need to succeed. This new law will save students money and shorten their time-to-degree. By reforming remedial education and expanding access to tutoring, millions of Californians will complete their education faster.”

In October, Newsom and higher education leaders including Gonzales gathered with California Volunteers to celebrate the swearing-in of more than 3,000 students who will earn $10,000 for serving their communities during this academic year as part of the first cohort of College Corps Fellows. “It’s the first time that students covered by California Assembly Bill 540 — a nonresident tuition exemption for undocumented and other eligible students at the state’s public colleges and universities — have been included in a state service program,” said a release from the community college system.

One College’s Approach

In the San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad metro area and border region, there is only one public institution of higher education in southern San Diego County (close to the San Diego-Tijuana border). Southwestern College in Chula Vista is doing its part to help the region respond to what a San Diego Regional EDC report says is a need for 20,000 skilled workers per year by 2030 across the county, along with 75,000 newly thriving households — goals the pandemic has made more difficult to reach. Southwestern is responding by partnering with universities like UC-San Diego to build satellite campuses at Southwestern so students can dual-enroll at Southwestern and a four-year university to save money and graduate sooner.

A spokesperson says the college, recognized as a leading Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) by the U.S. Department of Education, is also expanding dual-enrollment opportunities to high school students so that more students can access training in high tech, biotech and other in-demand careers, and expanding majors and programs in San Diego County’s most in-demand careers, including health care and biotech. Even if students choose not to transfer to a 4-year university, they’ll have the skills needed to obtain quality jobs in these fields. 

“Southwestern College is committed to ensuring that students can thrive in an environment that supports their personal and educational goals,” Southwestern College President Mark Sanchez tells me by email. “This includes removing as many obstacles to education as possible.” In concert with priorities at the state system level, “the college has long championed equity work and initiatives focused on student success,” Sanchez says Among them:

  • Championing a piece of California legislation — Assembly Bill 91 — that would allow Mexican students within 45 miles of the international border to attend San Diego and Imperial counties community colleges, including Southwestern College, while paying in-state tuition. The measure is supported by the San Diego and Imperial Valley Counties Community College Association (SDICCCA), which includes Southwestern College.
  • Waiving facility rental fees to members of the Kumeyaay Nation, who have historically called the San Diego region home.
  • Forgiving more than $1.5 million in outstanding student fees using COVID-19 relief funds during the pandemic.
  • Working with local university partners to bring bachelor’s degree programs to South County students because many of them are place-bound. The college is building a new University Center that will house 4-year university programs on its Chula Vista campus. The building will be complete in 2024. The college already has partnerships with San Diego State University and Point Loma Nazarene University which provide bachelor’s degree programs on the Chula Vista campus. 
  • Providing services such as free professional business clothing and food donations to students in need through initiatives like the Jag Kitchen and CARES Closet.
  • Partnering with local and national organizations, such as AMR and Bank of America, to foster increased diversity in allied health careers. “Last fall,” Sanchez says, “Southwestern and partner SDSU were two of 12 HSIs nationwide to receive funding from BofA to support Hispanic students pursuing careers in health care. This semester AMR put 11 Southwestern College students on their payroll and paid all their fees to complete their EMT program at Southwestern.”
  • Certifying an academic partnership with Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in nearby Tijuana, Mexico, to allow a cohort of low-income students to attend Southwestern College while paying in-state tuition. “I believe this is the beginning of an amazing collaboration that will be a benefit to our binational communities,” Sanchez said last June. “This is significant in that our binational region represents a $250 billion dollar economy. Future jobs will require specialized skills usually obtained through a degree, certificate or credential. Therefore, for us to work together to educate our communities is critically important.”  

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


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