If you have considered California’s community college system to be the foundation upon which this state’s higher education is constructed, you are correct.

The big four-year universities may be older and grander in a visual sense, but their overall importance pales in comparison to what started in the early 1900s as junior colleges, and have slowly grown into a powerful educational force, and arguably the spark that ignites California’s economy.

That’s a mouthful to be sure, but the facts are there for all to see — what began as “Fresno City College” in 1910 has mushroomed into 114 campuses statewide, educating nearly 2.5 million students a year.

We’ve written about the value of community colleges so many times over the years, it’s almost become something we take for granted. Mostly our editorials have served to praise the work of Allan Hancock College, where a variety of programs are responsible for training the local work force.

It’s happening again. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law the California College Promise, which will waive tuition and fees for first-time students taking 12 or more units per session.

Hancock College officials are excited about the new approach because it has the potential to enhance the Hancock Promise Program, potentially making a two-year degree free to students who qualify.

Here’s why that’s a very big deal. Tuition at community colleges in this state runs $46 per unit, which seems a bargain price — until you realize that even that small sum can keep many young people from even thinking about higher education after high school. When it comes time to make decisions about spending a few hundred dollars on college courses, or paying rent or making car payments, to a majority of young people the choice is pretty clear. Get a job.

The problem is, that temporary step often turns into a permanent career, which can be OK — but generally not nearly as financially rewarding as getting a two- or four-year degree and then launching a career.

Thousands of local high school graduates have made the sacrifice, gone to Hancock College and earned associate degrees or training and certification in medicine, law enforcement and other necessary workplace disciplines.

We’ve written the following so many times it’s almost a foregone conclusion — walk into any business, doctor’s office, police or fire station throughout the Central Coast, and it’s all but guaranteed you’ll find Hancock College grads on the job. And with the community college network as extensive and comprehensive as it is today, the same could be said for almost any region of California.

Details of the new statewide promise program have not yet been worked out, including how its estimated $30-million annual cost will be financed, but we see this as a very positive step to pushing this state back toward the top with regard to education.

For one thing, low-cost college will encourage a lot more high school seniors to start thinking about higher education instead of a minimum-wage job. Not everyone can afford a Cal State or UC school, but if there’s a chance a young person can earn a two-year degree without sinking deep into debt, that opens a lot of doors to a better future.

So, we congratulate state lawmakers and community college officials for thinking about that better future, and how best to pave the way for more young people to get the education and training they need to prosper.

That’s the concept that made the California community college system great in the first place, so it’s back to the future.

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