The California Community Colleges 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 an anonymous donor to 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 among the state’s poorest students.
The gift 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.
Eligible students 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 childcare often create barriers to completion.
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 one in five were homeless.
In addition, a survey of nearly 50,000 students by Oakley’s office 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.
“The Jay Pritzker Foundation grant is meant to serve those most in need who have the drive to succeed,” said foundation President Dan Pritzker in a statement. “Community colleges provide equal opportunity to pursue high-quality education without incurring crushing debt. We believe education is the key to preserving our democracy and hope others will join in supporting community colleges across the country.”
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.
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 donor was very insistent that if there was a gift, that it go to the neediest students,” Oakley said. “So we shared our strategic vision … 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 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 likely follow a model similar to one 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.
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. At that point, Oakley said, the plan is for the community college system and the donor to sit down and review whether those remain the colleges with the most need.
Madera Community College student Fulisha Oscar, 37, would be a 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 childcare 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.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.