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Historic $100-million gift will help California community college students most in need

Graduates in caps and gowns gather at sunset
A historic gift to California Community Colleges will help more students complete degrees, transfer to universities and cover their basic living expenses. Above, Santa Monica College graduates.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The California Community Colleges system announced Tuesday that it has received the largest ever gift to such institutions in the nation — $100 million — to help more students complete degrees, transfer to universities and support their basic living expenses.

The gift from the Jay Pritzker Foundation is described by college officials as a recognition of the role community colleges play in educating Californians and preparing them for the workforce. It also addresses the shortcomings of a system that is struggling in many regions to adequately and equitably address the higher education needs of some of the state’s poorest students.

The money will fund scholarships for students who have made significant progress toward completing a certificate, degree or transfer, as well as emergency financial aid for students who face unexpected hardships. It will be administered by the Foundation for California Community Colleges over 20 years and is expected to benefit tens of thousands of students.

Eligible students — those who are enrolled full-time, qualify for a tuition fee waiver, and have completed approximately half of the credits required for their program — will receive scholarships of up to $18,500 to reflect the actual cost of attending community college. Although tuition is low or free for many community college students, nontuition expenses like textbooks, transportation, food, housing and child care often create barriers to completion.

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Emergency financial aid will generally be available to any student facing a short-term financial barrier that could prevent them from enrolling or staying enrolled in college.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 116-college system, said the massive gift “speaks to the empathy that many people are feeling right now toward the individuals and communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.”

Before 2020, it was estimated that more than half of the students in the California Community College system experienced food insecurity and that one in five were homeless.

In addition, a systemwide survey of nearly 50,000 students in May and June found that 20% lacked access to reliable, high-speed internet, with Black and Latino students more affected than white students. More than half of the students surveyed reported their income had decreased, and 57% said they struggled with the basic needs of housing and food, with Black and Latino students again disproportionately affected.

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Daniel and Karen Pritzker, who donated the funds, said it was President Obama who first drew their attention to community colleges. They began thinking about how to make a gift after seeing their own daughter thrive in community college courses and go on to UC Berkeley.

“That really gave us an up-close view of what community colleges had to offer for serious students,” Dan Pritzker said at a news conference Tuesday.

In addition, he said, “There were a number of articles in the newspaper about kids or students that were fighting to stay in school, that were homeless, that were hungry and still struggling mightily to finish their education, and we found it very compelling. So we decided to push forward.”

The money comes as community colleges nationwide are reporting increased fundraising success amid the pandemic, particularly those seeking support for emergency student aid. Community colleges raised 47% more in the first nine months of 2020 than they did in all of 2019, according to Inside Higher Education.

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The Pritzker gift is aimed specifically at reducing regional educational gaps in California, one of six priorities identified by the community college foundation in its Vision for Success, laid out in 2017. For the first five years, the foundation will deliver grants to 34 community colleges in the Inland Empire, Central Valley and far Northern California — the regions of the state with the lowest percentage of adults who have college degrees.

The Pritzkers wanted their gift to go to students who are most in need. “We shared our strategic vision,” Oakley said, “and we showed that we were clearly focused on the three regions of the state that had some of the lowest graduation rates or degree attainment rates. These also happen to be some of the most under-resourced communities in the state. That appealed to the donor.”

Because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on community college students, money given out during the first year of the grant — which will begin within weeks — can be spent exclusively on emergency financial aid. Colleges must apply for the funds, up to $150,000 each, and explain how they plan to distribute it, but they will have wide leeway in identifying the students most in need and the amounts to give out.

They may follow the process used to allocate funds from the federal CARES Act, in which many colleges gave automatic, tiered grants to students based on their household income and also gave students the option to apply for aid.

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The community colleges received $580 million in funding from the CARES Act, with half going directly to one-time emergency grants for students, but in many cases need far outstripped available funds, and some students, including immigrants who were brought here as children, were initially told they did not qualify.

California community college students without legal status or who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, will be eligible for the Pritzker funds if they meet the other criteria.

Both types of aid — the scholarships and emergency grants — will be given only to students at the 34 community colleges in the three designated regions, at least for the first five years. Combined, the colleges serve 334,000 students. After five years, Oakley said, the plan is for the community college system and the Pritzker Foundation to sit down and review whether those remain the colleges with the most need.

Aliyah Hinckley, a 19-year-old kinesiology student at Shasta College in Redding, said cost is the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks about college. A scholarship would relieve some of that stress.

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“Students like me, we’re not rich or able to finance our whole education,” she said. “We want to achieve our goals and pursue our education and graduate and earn a degree, but paying for it can be a major setback.”

Madera Community College student Fulisha Oscar, 37, would be another likely recipient of aid. The mother of six and high school dropout fled an abusive relationship, earned her general educational development certificate and began as a full-time student at Madera in the fall of 2018. She is two classes away from transferring to Fresno State, where she hopes to earn degrees in victimology and psychology that will help her go on, ultimately, to create a home with child care for domestic violence survivors like herself.

Oscar relies on scholarships, pay from a part-time job at her college’s admissions and records office, and side jobs making T-shirts and selling makeup to make ends meet for herself and her children, five of whom she is currently homeschooling because of the pandemic — all while she is also trying to work and study from home.

Additional aid of any amount, Oscar said, “would help me eliminate the stress of, ‘how am I going to provide the next meal for my children?’ The money would help me focus more on my education.”


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