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Dr. Kevin Walthers

Dr. Kevin Walthers

More than three years ago we started a conversation about higher education deserts on the Central Coast. Today that conversation is taking on national importance as evidenced by the recent report Place Matters: A Closer Look at Education Deserts.

Most students attend the college closest to them. In fact, two of every three undergraduates go to college within 25 miles of their home. This is particularly true in our region, where nearly 90 percent of Hancock students are local, and half of all high school graduates enroll at Allan Hancock College.

Today’s college students don’t fit the old stereotype. Thirty-seven percent are over the age of 25. Twenty-four percent are parents and most work while attending school. Wealthy students who are most mobile and whose college-going decisions are least affected by distance have options. But for students from lower-income families and students of color – the majority of students Hancock serves – college choices are highly localized decisions.

It’s no secret that our region lags behind county, state and national averages in regard to educational attainment. The City of Santa Maria included this fact as part of its strategic plan. Local economic advocacy groups, social justice organizations, elected officials and industry leaders have all called for an expansion of educational opportunities in our region. The key to long term educational gains is the development of a college-going culture in our community. Too many parents think that college is out of reach for their children – that the barriers created by cost and distance to a CSU or UC campus relegates our children to low-skill jobs.

The Place Matters report examines defined clusters in a way that counts Hancock, Cuesta College and Santa Barbara City College as being part of the same commuting zone, initially giving the appearance of broad access to education. However, the authors acknowledge that some areas are more of an “educational mirage.”

The mirage is driven by geography and restricted access to our local universities. Hancock maintains the highest transfer rate into Cal Poly — for 18 years running! — but students see limited opportunities to become Mustangs as the share of transfer spots available for Hancock and Cuesta students continues to decline. Private and for-profit colleges in the area also offer a few bachelor’s degrees, but the price of these programs is often prohibitive to many students.

Failure on the part of policymakers to recognize the mirage exacerbates inequality by giving the appearance of access for a group of students that lack the resources needed to pursue geographic mobility. The report suggests that states should help colleges build capacity as a means “to both expand opportunity and promote student success in places where opportunities are the most constrained.”

The North County Econ Alliance has forcefully called for the expansion of baccalaureate programs for our region. They note that baccalaureate degrees will support local employment opportunities in business administration, marketing, information systems, agribusiness, viticulture, and more. Of course, Hancock offers associate degrees and certificates in each of these areas – but our region needs options beyond the associate degree level.

While it’s unlikely that the state will fund a CSU satellite center in North County, the evidence for expanding baccalaureate degrees at community colleges is growing. SB 850 already allows 15 California community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees via a pilot program. The catch? The degrees cannot be offered at any CSU campus. Even with this restriction, four year programs such as the Health Information Management Program at San Diego Mesa College are now turning out graduates who are able to pursue well-paying careers.

We are continuing to ask our statewide leaders to look closely at the role geography plays in shaping educational opportunities. If we want to meet the real needs of our diverse communities, we must reframe how we provide access and imagine new ways to support communities who are place-bound. As noted in the report, simply rolling out an online option does not improve the odds for students. Colleges that are exclusively online do not match the quality of California’s community colleges. Moreover, the online colleges fail to support the core of our community, serving “students of color and those who commute from work far more poorly than other students.”

If policymakers want to align goals to improve educational opportunity, geography must play a central role in guiding their conversation. Place matters, and we must ensure that the promise of a quality education isn’t just a mirage for our community.

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Kevin G. Walthers, Ph.D., is the superintendent/president of Allan Hancock College. The full report cited here can be found at www.thirdway.org/issue/education.

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