Community Colleges

Community-College Leaders Hear Praise and Challenge From Schwarzenegger

Goldie Blumenstyk

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told community-college leaders beleaguered by budget cuts that their institutions still represent "the institution of hope" for the country.
October 08, 2009

Forty years after he walked into a community college himself, looking for the skills "to make millions of dollars and be rich and famous," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California told 1,500 trustees and presidents of those colleges assembled here today that their colleges now represent "the institution of hope" for the country.

Recalling the courses he took in English, business, and history in 1969, one year after he came to the United States from his native Austria, Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said, "I am so appreciative of the extraordinary education I got at Santa Monica City College."

Today, he said, the colleges still offer hope for the laid-off father trying to find a new career to support his family, for the young woman turned away from a four-year college, and for "an immigrant like myself," looking to make his way in the country.

To cheers and applause, the governor reminded attendees at the annual meeting of the Association of Community College Trustees that people who talk about the importance of college without recognizing the contributions of two-year institutions are "making a real mistake."

In California, he noted, 80 percent of the firefighters and emergency medical technicians are trained by community colleges, as are 70 percent of the nurses.

He also acknowledged that the colleges face huge challenges because of dire budget conditions in many states, including his own. The California community colleges, by far the nation's largest system of two-year institutions, have been hit with cuts in state support amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, while its students have faced higher fees on the one hand and a narrowing of the pipeline to four-year colleges on the other.

Serve Students Better, or Build Prestige

The challenges facing college leaders were also brought home by the head of a major educational foundation, Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation for Education.

With the Obama administration now poised to pump $12-billion into community colleges over the next 10 years, as part of the American Graduation Initiative, the colleges are in the spotlight. "Ready or not, it's your time," he told the attendees.

Mr. Merisotis, whose foundation has spearheaded efforts to raise the nation's college-going and college-graduation rates, said it was important that trustees, presidents, and other college officials ensure that their efforts in the years to come focus on serving students, particularly those who have historically not succeeded in college, and not just on building prestige.

Leaders need to ask themselves, he said, Is that new program designed to actually serve students better, or just "boost enrollment"? Will you improve developmental mathematics classes for students who come to college with inadequate preparation, "or just add another physics course"?

Mr. Merisotis, whose foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have just awarded the association and two others a $1-million grant to develop a new system of accountabililty for community colleges, also reminded his audience that the goals of getting more students into and through college won't mean much unless the courses and the experience have depth. "Quality is vital," he said.

The meeting, which also focuses on how community colleges can become more international, improve their fund raising, and promote local economic development, continues through Saturday.