How can California begin to plan to meet the looming workforce shortage?

On Friday, May 16th, twenty-four Central Valley leaders came together at Modesto’s El Concilio Council for the Spanish Speaking to discuss bold reforms for higher education in California and provide feedback for a statewide plan. The individuals in attendance represented a broad cross section of stakeholders, including business, philanthropy, local nonprofits, K-12 education, and higher education.

The group began by reviewing how their region is performing in six key college measures (see the North San Joaquin Valley profile) and then launched into an energetic conversation about game changers for higher education, with special emphasis given to the overarching themes of access, completion, accountability, and affordability. In breakout group discussions, participants were asked to rank the bold reforms presented in each category, and then to vote for their top four reforms overall so that The Campaign could get a sense of the priorities outlined by community leaders in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Below are some of the top level priorities that rose to the surface based upon group voting.

ACCESS

  • Expand eligibility through A-G completion. By far, this reform was considered to be the most crucial way to improve access to higher education, and was voted as the top reform among all those discussed in any category. Participants saw value in both making A-G curriculum the default for high school graduation, and in making sure that special focus is given to underrepresented minority populations to close equity gaps.
  • Expand capacity. Discussion among the groups around ensuring that more students could take advantage of higher education in California focused on strategies to expand capacity in the following ways: ensuring that more students graduate on time and with as few excess units as possible, improving coordination between higher education segments, and creating more improved and better supported vocational and career technical education pathways.
  • Expand college knowledge and promote a college-going culture. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the lowest educational attainment rates in the state. A common theme of simply making sure that students understand that college is not outside of their reach, and know what resources are available to them, was seen as a very important step to improving access.

COMPLETION

  • Focus on equity. Listening tour participants felt strongly that ensuring equitable outcomes and setting targets by race and ethnicity for completion was vital to fulfilling the promise of higher education in California. A focus on equity was voted among the top four reforms that day.
  • Accelerate college readiness. There was a sense among some participants that community colleges spend a lot of their resources on basic skills education, with unimpressive results. While there is clearly a need for having these educational pathways available, participants felt that making sure that students were more successfully—and more quickly—moving through to college-level coursework is important. Additionally, participants understood the challenges students face when taking assessment tests and that the placement of students into appropriate level coursework could be improved. Addressing college readiness was the second top-ranked reform among all discussed.

ACCOUNTABILITY

  • Create an oversight or coordinating body. While some participants felt that creating some sort of entity that oversees all higher education segments in the state, others felt that it would be more beneficial to create a P-20 Council that would look at the entire pipeline.
  • Fund for enrollment and completion. Participants felt that this was a critical lever in improving student outcomes and that a funding model that rewarded both access and success should be adopted across public higher education segments.

AFFORDABILITY

  • Expand financial aid for community college students. Again, among the top ranked reforms under affordability and in the top four reforms overall, is the idea of expanding financial aid. And while there is great need for more financial aid to community college students, some participants felt that all college students would benefit from an expansion.
  • Improve financial aid access. In addition to making sure that students know the financial aid options to them and that they take advantage of it by completing the FAFSA, there was also discussion about ensuring that aid goes to those students with the most need and that there are measures put in place to hold students accountable to maintaining their enrollment after receiving their aid.

Central Valley participants of the Modesto Listening Tour stop ultimately professed a tremendous amount of gratitude that The Campaign was tackling this important discussion and including their voices in crafting a statewide plan that would accurately reflect regional higher education priorities. We left the event having strengthened existing partnerships, with new opportunities to deepen community engagement and some excellent ideas.

The Campaign for College Opportunity was excited to host a room full of leaders ready to bring change to higher education in California. Their enthusiasm gives us the energy to continue these vibrant discussions across the state of California. Next stop, San Jose!