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“College is making me the man that I always dreamed of becoming.”

Those are the words of a student attending one of California’s 110 community colleges. They sum up perfectly the aspirations and opportunities that college education is all about – especially community college.

Unfortunately, far too many college students today will never see their dreams realized. Of all the California community college students who enter college intending to either earn an associate degree or transfer to a four-year school, only 24 percent of them are successful in doing so within six years.

A college degree is important. It increases an individual’s expected lifetime earnings by more than $1 million, improves their employability and puts a satisfying and socially valuable career within their reach. In fact, 90 percent of the fastest growing job categories now require a post-secondary education. California community colleges’ open access policies open the doors of higher learning to millions of students who would otherwise be left out. The state of California has benefited from the industriousness of its students; thanks to its highly educated workforce, California became a leader which other states look to for innovative technology, solutions to environmental problems, arts and culture.

In the current economic climate, it would be comforting to know that we still have this ace up our sleeve; unfortunately, our competitive advantage is vanishing. Think tanks estimate that California needs about 55 percent of our population to be college educated in order to compete with other states and nations by 2025. We are currently projected to be at about 43 percent – millions of degrees short. This shortfall is compounded by the fact that the fastest growing segment of our population, young Hispanic, is also the ethnic group with the worst educational attainment disparities.

Graduates from our 110 community colleges could be a big part of the solution, using their skills and knowledge to repower our economy. In this context, the fact that student success rates are so low is very troubling – we simply can’t afford for so many community college students to fall through the cracks.

A big part of the problem is financial. Students need to be able focus on their studies. It’s well known that community college fees are low; less well known is the fact that fees comprise only about 5 percent of the total cost of attendance. To make ends meet, most community college students work. A recent CALPIRG survey found that the average student worked 23 hours per week, leaving too little time to focus on academics. They need that time. Three out of five community college students are underprepared for college and in need of remediation. They have to focus on academics if they are to succeed.

To make the problem worse, despite the fact that many have low incomes and great financial need, community college students in California apply for financial aid in lower numbers than students in other states, leaving as much as $220 million in federal aid on the table. CALPIRG’s study found that the reason for this is that many community college students don’t understand the basics of financial aid. Students who knew the least about financial aid are also the least likely to have applied for it.

Community college students face many challenges in getting to graduation, but going to college without the student aid for which they are eligible shouldn’t be one of them. Financial aid offices need to make sure that they are getting the basic facts about financial aid in an understandable format out to all students.

We all need to realize how much of a stake we hold in the success of today’s college students. If we don’t invest in the wonderful public colleges and universities we have in California – and the financial aid programs that support the students in them – we’re jeopardizing our ability to recover from this recession and the future prosperity of our state.

Saffron Zomer is the campus program director for public interest organization CALPIRG. She can be contacted at saffron@calpirgstudents.org. Learn more about CALPIRG’s Getting to Graduation Campaign at http://www.calpirgstudents.org/graduation-app/stories/.

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