“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Pamela Burdman, a Program Officer with the Foundation’s Education Program, has primary responsibility for grants related to California’s community colleges. Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle and a freelance journalist. She also has taught college courses both in journalism and Mandarin. She holds an M.B.A. and M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a B.A. in philosophy and East Asian Studies from Princeton University.

Why is it important that California’s community colleges succeed?

California’s community college system is the largest educational system in the world. More than 2.5 million students attend it each year. That’s more than four times the number that attends all of California’s public four-year universities combined.

And to assure California’s health and well-being, we need to have an educated population. We can’t afford not to care about community colleges because having a college education has become essential to the economy. One of our grantees, the Public Policy Institute of California, has done research on the state’s workforce needs in coming years and shown that it won’t be possible to import all the educated workers we need. The only way to provide enough of these workers is through the kind of education community colleges offer.

But we’re losing ground. The United States used to be far ahead of other nations in our population’s education level. Over the last twenty years that has ceased to be true. In California, each successive generation is less educated than the generation before it, while in many other developed nations, each successive generation is better educated. And California is doing worse than other states. This is a potentially dangerous trend if we care about the economic vitality of the state.

Community colleges are crucial to reversing this trend. California limits the number of students who can attend its four-year institutions to those who graduate in the top third of their classes. Most of the rest who want to pursue higher education go to one of the 109 community colleges in the state and transfer to a four-year institution if they complete the requirements.

Today, of all students who attend a California community college seeking a degree or certificate, or to transfer to a four-year university, only about one-quarter do so within six years of enrolling.  At this rate, the state will not be able to ensure an educated workforce or a prosperous economy.   

What are the causes of the decline in education levels?

Part of it has to do with the makeup of California’s population. The fastest-growing part of the population is Latinos, who historically have not gone to college at high rates. And those who do attend are not as likely to finish as are Caucasian and Asian students. If we allow those trends to continue, the overall education level of California will continue to decline.

But it’s more complicated than that. Research shows that, regardless of demographics, students who start at a four-year university are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than are those who start at a community college. There are fewer hurdles for them to jump at a four-year school.  At community colleges, there’s a major lack of guidance to help students develop clear educational and career goals and learn the skills they need to succeed in college and the workforce.  The requirements to transfer from a community college to a four-year school aren’t always clear to students. And the requirements for entering a four-year school aren’t aligned with those for obtaining a two-year degree at the community college. Those are just some of the problems.

Why do California’s community colleges face these problems, and how does the state compare to the rest of the country?

One long-term issue is that funding for community colleges is very low compared to state funding both for the K-12 system and the four-year universities. That’s true nationally, but in California the gap appears to be greater than in many other states. It’s hard to be precise because different states calculate funding in different ways.

With less money, the community colleges have a difficult balancing act between instruction, student counseling, and financial aid offices. So the students who may be most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and need financial aid the most, may not be able to fight for the help they need to get it. And if they do get counseling, it might not be the best. A study we recently funded found that there are 140,000 students each year eligible for federal financial aid but not getting it for various reasons. That’s $220 million in financial aid that students leave on the table.

On the teaching side, part of the problem goes back to students’ earlier education. The majority of students who attend community colleges come in academically unprepared for college-level work in math and English. If they have challenges in reading or math, that gets in the way of their succeeding in most of their other classes. It’s a double bind. If they only take remedial classes, they’re not taking anything that seems relevant or that motivates them to continue. But if they don’t do the remedial work, they may not be able to succeed in the courses that would prepare them for the workforce or a four-year school.

Sometimes lack of money and state regulations compound the teaching problems. There are teaching methods that can help students be more successful. But often these methods cost more than the available funding allows. So college administrators would need to sacrifice something else to adopt new approaches. And, even if they do want to try them, sometimes state regulations get in the way.
Another huge problem is that the majority of students attending community colleges do so part-time and work thirty or more hours a week. That interferes with continuity in their education. A lot of the faculty is part-time, too, which makes it hard to execute plans to improve instruction.

So how can the Hewlett Foundation help?

We’re working on several levels. There are things that we know colleges could do better today without a change in resources or rules. Some steps involve helping college staff learn some of the best teaching techniques and how to start using them, and then helping to spread those techniques to other schools.

But we know that there are limits to what the colleges can do given the current resources and regulations. Our grantees do research and tell leaders in the college system and state government about the regulations that prevent progress, so they can craft better policies. For example, we know that many students aren’t taking courses that will clearly lead to a credential or a four-year university, so some grantees work on identifying how to changes the rules so that colleges can provide pertinent counseling for more students.  

We also fund efforts to build external support for community colleges. The Campaign for College Opportunity works to inform policymakers, the media, and interested members of the public about the importance of supporting and investing in these colleges.

Finally, we support the development of tools to analyze data that will let community college administrators know how students are progressing.

Biggest obstacles to reform?

One of the biggest problems is that historically, community colleges have not gotten the money they need to do the job. And that’s because they haven’t gotten enough attention from the legislature and policymakers who could make a difference.

Why haven’t they gotten this attention if they educate most of California’s college students?

Great question. The prestige factor is important. Our great public research universities are something we in California are so proud of that we’ve had a bit of a check-the-box mentality about community colleges. Another reason is that members of the media and other people who influence decisions tend themselves not to have come out of community colleges. I do believe this is changing. The governor has something to do with it, as has the work of our grantees.

Changing the way organizations function is an enormous challenge. But it’s a challenge we absolutely need to face.

What does success look like in the next five or ten years?

The Public Policy Institute of California’s study told us the number of educated people we need in this state to maintain our economic well-being. Our goal is to get as close to those numbers as possible.