Pay Now or Pay Later: The Future of California

March
2011
Raymond Hicks, ESL faculty and senate president elect at Santa Ana College

Considering how important worker training is to the economic recovery both nationally and statewide, it is essential to increase the investment in education, particularly at the community college level, where much of the job training takes place. However, the danger looms of reductions to vital programs and to already scarce resources. Since an educated workforce is the foundation of any substantial economic recovery and sustainable future growth, more investment in education is required. Therefore, in light of global economic competition, it is urgent that California strengthen its investment in the future, for the cost of not doing so is actually much higher.

In the past, many high-growth industries have located in California to take advantage of a solid labor pool. Through previous investments in a well-developed education system, California has created an excellent labor base to provide critical thought and inspiration, resulting in innovative developments in technology and science. While talent worldwide has relocated here, much of the talent has been home grown. Currently, the educational system that worked so well in the past is deeply strained while the last drops of value are squeezed from it. Even now with high unemployment rates, the demand for certain skilled workers is growing, yet the qualified candidates do not exist. Unlike the last downturn of this magnitude, the Great Depression, the needed skill level to gain even entry-level job positions is much higher. At that time, manual labor could get employment in construction projects, like the Tennessee Valley Authority or Hoover Dam. Now to add value to an enterprise, skills are more likely to require picking up a computer mouse than picking up a shovel. Consequently, the investment needed to create the required skills is much greater, demanding a stronger commitment to education. It follows that if California wants to attract, as well as to cultivate, high-value state-of-the-art businesses, it needs to provide a mentally-nimble workforce prepared for the ever-changing demands of the new world. Regrettably, along with the need for advanced education and workforce retraining, community colleges must confront aging infrastructure at many college campuses, along with an increasing number of underprepared students. Limited resources leave the system weakened, and the colleges risk becoming less productive in their mission of educating. A self-fulfilling negative spiral ensues as the public perceives the mission a failure, thus demanding cuts, just when investment is most critical—effectively preparing the workforce to participate in a recovery. Without investment, the California workforce will not possess the skills needed to provide the value added that an employer needs for a business venture to compete in the global markets.

From a historical perspective, the educational master plan has provided guidance, not just as a plan for education, but also as a system to create economic growth and prosperity. Instituting open access to education relieves the pressure that actively destabilizes society caused by the sentence of poverty and the resultant creation of an elite class that has access. However, the effect not only gives people a chance at a piece of the pie, but makes society’s pie bigger by adding quality to the workforce and catalyzing economic growth. Productivity gains add value to the intellectual capital of the state, creating rising wealth, prosperity, and living standards for all residents.

By spending less on education, California ensures that an entire group of people, as well as the state as a whole, will miss out on future prosperity. Of course, the disenfranchised group, especially the late teens and young adults, will not sit by idly. Education is always available, but it is not necessarily in a place and form that is productive to society. Education is provided at private schools, public schools, schools of the street, and prisons. The latter focuses on the acquisition of skills that work against the public good. However, they provide attractive and immediate benefits to the disenfranchised. If California is unable to or unwilling to educate the segment of the population in the greatest need, it will sow the seeds of furthering crime, and increasing welfare and prison costs. One could almost picture an advertisement with a newly-arrested prisoner near a school, stating, “They wouldn’t educate me here, so I found my education elsewhere.”

While questioning government spending is an important way of identifying waste, true capital investment based on valuable returns on investment is not wasteful, even in these severe budgetary times. For the money, community colleges provide the best education bargain anyone can make. All residents in the state benefit from the investment in intellectual capital, as they do in infrastructure investment, such as roads, bridges, and hospitals. The opportunity for a quality education is one of the resources that should be available to everyone in the society. Education once received does not sit by statically. It has a multiplier effect by creating further economic growth opportunities. Therefore, the people who equate public education with public welfare ignore the eventual return on investment that the state gains in productivity and the bolstering of the tax base. It is counterproductive for educational resources to become scarce while educational needs are at their peak. California, and the United States as a whole, has always done best by feeding the entrepreneurial spirit and maximizing the creative opportunities for its citizens. Opportunities do not exist without a meaningful education, and a meaningful education does not exist without a fully-supported public education system as its foundation.

What confronts California is dire. From the academic community, Nancy Shulock, Executive Director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy, writes on how we must “invest in success.” She tells of underfunded students in need of developmental education, who don’t succeed fast enough and don’t make it through to a certificate, to a degree, or to transferring to a four-year college or university. From the business community, the Director of the Milliken Institute argues that the U.S. economy cannot grow and compete globally without a significant commitment to education, which requires a substantial value change for Americans. As a culture, Americans tend to misappropriate excessive amounts on over-sized houses and high horse-powered automobiles, while foreign competitors spend on education. Community colleges cannot control what skills students have before they enter their doors, yet they can take the students from whatever educational level they enter and start making improvements. This type of investment requires more patience and a deeper commitment but is a worthwhile undertaking in the state’s future.

The mission of the California community colleges is vast. The colleges should not be criticized for failing at their jobs when they are not. They should be supported for their extensive accomplishments. They take students with little-to-no language skills and educate them. They take high-achieving students and transfer them to top-tier schools. They take workers with obsolete skills and retrain them. No other system even attempts this. That they do it as efficiently and cost-effectively as they do is truly laudable. The breadth of responsibilities and achievements should be understood by everyone, especially their critics.

We are in need of a call to action. The State of California’s future has been compromised. It is on a deteriorating path and has hit red-alert status. Clearly, the benefits of education and the comprehensive work done at the California community colleges are not self-evident to the population at large. As uncomfortable as it may be for faculty to step out of the educator role and lead a public marketing campaign to inform the populace, much like the “Your tax dollars at work” signs did years ago, it has become mission critical to do just that. Somehow the message that everyone in the state benefits from the value added by the educated has been lost. It may be the next burden of the Academic Senate to launch an aggressive campaign in the communities of every campus of every district for active support of the largest educational system in the world and the benefits it provides to all. I intend to make the importance of this investment part of my regular communication with students and people in my community. What about you?

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.