Top Down: Directives for California’s Community Colleges

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

The directive to “put your money where your mouth is” is no more aptly apparent these days than by its manifestation through government investments in California’s community colleges (CCC). The State’s proposed ’21-’22 budget reflects its dedicated intention to improve revenues, advance equity goals, and address the myriad of students’ needs that existed prior to COVID-19, as well as those that emerged during that pandemic. The financial directives are more than just suggestions, however: they actually set the parameters around decision-making at individual schools and connect the dots between the State’s economic growth aspirations and the local and regional efforts needed to accomplish those.


Proposed Budget Reveals Economic Challenges …

The California state government is now struggling with the budget shortfalls caused when the overwhelming COVID-19 virus began its spread in early 2020. A $54.3 billion gap between its estimated ’20-’21 budget and its actual revenue required several significant adjustments to its’ 21-’22 financial plan. In crafting the proposal, leadership noted the damage and recovery disparities revealed by the economic impact on the State’s various populations:

Wealthier populations fared better over the course of the pandemic than did their less economically advantaged neighbors. A strong stock market helped; people in higher income brackets typically invest more into (and gain more benefits from) publicly held companies. Further, the professional industries that support higher-paid occupations suffered fewer disruptions and less contraction than industries that rely on less extensive skillsets.

Those industries that employ middle- and low-wage workers suffered the most negative impact of the pandemic. These industries tend to be more service-related, and their labor force typically includes a less educated and more ethically diverse worker population. The coronavirus cut off the opportunity to access service-based businesses and forced many companies to close, leaving their workers unemployed and without other occupational options. Making matters worse, many service-related companies and even industries are not expected to re-emerge as the services they provided were co-opted by technology and other providers. This situation leaves millions of unemployed workers with no obvious employment prospects that engage their current skillsets or developed expertise.



… and the State’s Long-Range Bull’s Eye(s)

The proposed budget addresses these challenges by outlining preferred spending strategies that play out over three main themes:

Addressing Long-standing Equity Gaps

The racially charged national incidents that occurred throughout 2020 triggered increased attention to equally alarming social concerns within California. In June 2020, the California Community College Chancellors Office (CCCCO) issued a “Call to Action,” urging leadership at the State’s 116 CCCs to identify and ‘take action’ against the structural and embedded racism that remains an unwanted element of the system’s configuration. Statistics reveal that almost 70% of all CCC students identify with at least one ethnic group, making the overall CCC student population one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. Inequities in access, resources, or opportunities buried deep within the existing system unfairly discriminate against these students. The directives included in the “Call to Action” were extrapolated from a collaborative webinar engaging numerous CCC participants and were designed to ferret out and eliminate these biases. The directives are broad in their scope and provide a template for each campus to use to move its equity-improvement project forward:

    1. Conduct a system-wide review of police and first responder training and curriculum to identify embedded racial or ethnic biases;
    2. Encourage campus leaders to host open dialogues that address the campus ethnic and equity climate;
    3. Include audits of the classroom ethnic and equity climate, too, and develop an action plan to ensure both inclusive classrooms and an anti-racism curriculum;
    4. Urge District Boards to prioritize the review and updating of their Equity plans;
    5. Shorten the time to a full implementation of the CCC DEI Integration Plan recommendations; and
    6. Encourage the system-wide engagement with the virtual “Community Colleges for Change” on the Vision Resource Center.

These investments indicate that State leadership is taking note of the current uncomfortable realities of both COVID and racial bias disruptions and engaging the opportunities presented by 2021 economic recovery efforts to address them both.


Building Support for Small and Mid-sized Businesses

In addition to the $500 million already allocated to support the State’s small business community pursuant to the CA Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant, the ’21-’22 budget also includes another $575 million to support its Equitable Recovery for California’s Businesses and Jobs plan.

This budget item reflects the significance of the State’s small business community, describing it as ‘California’s economic backbone’ and noting that it employs nearly half of all private-sector workers and creates two-thirds of the new jobs that typically develop over the course of a year. Support for these critical entities comes in several forms:

It provides microgrants of as much as $25,000 to specific small business populations, including those most impacted by COVID and those that serve disadvantaged or underrepresented communities. It also offers grant support to small-business cultural entities, including museums, art galleries, and arts associations.

It proposes maintenance-level funding of $777.5 million for the California Jobs Initiative, which facilitates jobs development and sustainability, regional development opportunities, and small business innovations, including those relating to emerging climate change concerns.

It creates tax incentives to encourage new business development and attract existing businesses to relocate to California from other states.

It also provides funds for the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (iBank) for loans to COVID-impacted companies and supports manufacturing efforts designed to achieve the State’s climate goals.

The title of ‘California’s ‘small’ business community’ in no way describes its significance to the state’s success as a whole, and these budget allocations indicate the importance that it plays as a foundation to the State’s successful economic future.


Increasing Investments in Workforce Development

The proposed budget maintains its ongoing focus on workforce development strategies that support student engagement and encourage higher education institutions to collaborate with their local workforce partners. Most notably, a one-time investment of $120 million supports the State’s student population by providing emergency student financial assistance to essentially allow a no-cost ‘do-over’ for learners who’ve lost a year of tuition because of COVID-caused school closures.

The funding includes support for efforts aimed at work-based learning, facilitating the development of a reliable and flexible online learning infrastructure, and the expansion of apprenticeships, both in numbers and in the scope of their variety. Enhanced mental health services and supports for student retention and both enrollment and re-enrollment are also on the table. All of these efforts remain true to the State’s intention to grow its economy by building and maintaining a strong workforce development pipeline from its community colleges into its businesses and industries.


The State is proposing these and other economic-related incentives to encourage rebuilding the economy post-pandemic while also recrafting its economy on a more equitable and sustainable foundation. By strategically investing in both its community colleges and its small business community as long-term economic assets – ‘putting its money where its mouth is” – the State is revealing its intention to harness them together as a unique and unstoppable workforce development team, capable of withstanding not just a pandemic but any other economic calamity that will certainly emerge in the future.


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