California community colleges receive historic $100M gift for scholarships, emergency aid

In the largest-ever philanthropic gift to U.S. community colleges, the Jay Pritzker Foundation has pledged to donate $100 million to the California Community Colleges system. Across 20 years, the gift will provide scholarships and emergency aid grants for tens of thousands of low-income students attending the 116-college system, The Los Angeles Times reports.

In donating the funds, Daniel and Karen Pritzker said they have seen the value of community college firsthand: their daughter began her postsecondary education at community college, thrived, and went on to attend UC Berkeley. They also became aware of the many community college students struggling to complete a degree while contending with housing, food, and other basic needs insecurity.

This grant “is meant to serve those most in need who have the drive to succeed,” said Dan Pritzker, president of the Jay Pritzker Foundation. “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.”

Removing financial barriers to degree completion

California students face a disproportionately high cost of living, meaning that non-tuition expenses are often a key hurdle to college completion. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of California community college students said they were food-insecure, and 20 percent had experienced homelessness.

The current public health and economic crisis has only intensified the strain: more than half of students responding to a systemwide survey in May and June reported a loss of income, and 57 percent reported housing and food insecurity. One in five said they lacked access to reliable, high-speed internet. Black and Latino students were disproportionately affected across all categories.

The Pritzker Foundation 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,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, told the LA Times. “This unparalleled level of support for our students will be life-changing,” he added in a press release.

Administered by the Foundation for California Community Colleges (FoundationCCC)—the nonprofit auxiliary to the California Community Colleges—the new grant will provide scholarships of up to $18,500 per year for full-time students who qualify for a tuition-fee waiver and have earned approximately half of their program’s required credits. Students may use the scholarship funds to cover the costs of non-tuition expenses such as course materials, transportation, food, housing, and child care.

The new gift also will fund emergency aid for students facing unexpected, short-term financial hardships that could derail their academic progress. Students without legal status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients will be eligible to receive funds if they otherwise meet the scholarship and aid criteria.

Closing regional gaps

For the first five years, FoundationCCC will direct these grants exclusively to 34 community colleges in three under-resourced regions of the state: the Inland Empire, Central Valley, and Far North, areas with the state’s lowest college attainment rates.

Starting in a few weeks, the 34 colleges—which collectively serve 334,000 of the system’s 2.1 million students—will be eligible to receive up to $150,000 for the program’s first year. Given the pandemic’s impact, the institutions will be permitted to direct 100 percent of funds to emergency aid, as needed. According to the LA Times, the colleges “will have wide leeway in identifying the students most in need and the amounts to give out.”

After the initial five-year period, the community college system and Pritzker Foundation will assess which institutions would most benefit from the grants going forward.

Drawing attention, philanthropy to two-year schools

The Pritzker Foundation gift “changes the landscape for community college philanthropy,” Geoff Green, president of the Network for California Community Colleges Foundations and chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, said in a statement. “It is not only an act of incredible generosity, but also a clear statement that our community colleges are worthy of this level of investment.”

Green added that he expects the donation “will serve as a signal to donors across the country that community colleges are perhaps the best tools we have for increasing social and economic mobility, addressing economic barriers to higher education, and tackling equity issues in our communities.”

A number of two-year colleges are reporting strong fundraising performance amid the pandemic, Inside Higher Ed reports. “I’m feeling a lot of overall community recognition of the important role that community colleges play in making college affordable,” Laura Bray, vice president of college advancement and external communications at Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Area Technical College, told the publication.

Bray said her institution has seen a 147 percent year-over-year increase in philanthropic gifts as donors answer the call for emergency funds to help meet urgent student needs and enable students headed for health care fields to complete their licensing and enter the workforce.

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