Cal State Northridge campus

Two prominent foundations are teaming up to award Los Angeles and two other California areas a combined million dollars to help more students earn college degrees.

The money is part of a $6 million effort called Talent Hub by the Lumina Foundation and Kresge Foundation to fund 17 cities or regions across the country that are assisting low-income students and educating adult workers who either dropped out of college or have no education beyond high school.

Fresno, the state’s rural north counties and Los Angeles are each receiving $350,000 to support their college-going efforts. The project’s planners expect that their investments will lead to 30,000 to 50,000 more workers with degrees and certificates in California by the end of 2020.

We want to “empower the community to take responsibility for its own future and its own sustainability,” said Haley Glover, strategy director at Lumina. “That means that even though we’re providing a relatively modest amount of funding … the community is actually responsible for leveraging those resources as much as they can.”

The money will mostly be used to expand data systems and other technologies that allow colleges and universities to share information about student progress and track the success of the reforms already underway. Both Kresge and Lumina will supply technical know-how to the sites in addition to the money.

Lumina and Kresge spend tens of millions annually on higher-education programs annually.

Lumina’s philanthropy is meant to push the country closer to the foundation’s goal of ensuring 60 percent of the nation’s workforce has a college degree or certificate by 2025. The country still has a long way to go — Lumina tallies that 45.8 percent of Americans had a degree or certificate in 2017. Kresge’s higher-education advocacy includes improving social services, mentoring and public transit options for college students in urban areas.

California is chasing its own goals of an educated workforce. The state needs 1.1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 to stay economically competitive, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Lumina data says roughly 15 percent of Californian workers have some college experience but no degree. The foundation isn’t just aiming for more bachelor’s degree holders; its goal includes short-term credentials and other certificates that increase the odds of boosting workers’ wages. By that measure, 47.5 percent of Californians have either a college certificate or degree.

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, noted Thursday in a call with reporters that the economic recovery since the recession has been cruel to workers with no education beyond high school. A 2016 Georgetown University report estimated that just 1 percent of the 11.6 million jobs created between 2010 and 2016 were for positions that required a high school diploma or less. “For people with a high school diploma or less, in many ways the recession never really ended,” Merisotis said.

There are, however, growing concerns that more employers are requesting higher education levels than the jobs require.

The 17 sites nationwide were picked because of their ongoing projects to coordinate colleges, universities and non-profits to find non-traditional ways of awarding more students degrees.

In Los Angeles, that means retroactively awarding associate’s degrees to students who had dropped out of Cal State Northridge after transferring from a community college but never formally received their associate’s. Under the project management of UNITE LA — an arm of the area’s Chamber of Commerce — three community colleges in the San Fernando Valley and the Cal State will partner to review the course history of students who’ve dropped out and find the ones eligible for an associate’s degree.

The partnership will also reach out to students who dropped out of Cal State Northridge by enrolling them into one of the three community colleges so that they can work toward an associate’s and then transfer to the Cal State so that they can earn their bachelor’s degrees after two years. The goal is to eventually expand the degree recovery program for all of Los Angeles.

The Talent Hub money is “priming the pump” for these reforms, said David Rattray, executive vice president at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “Unless we pool our resources somehow, this is the kind of student who will tend to stay left out,” he said. “There is no dedicated set of resources to go find them and get them back.”

Fresno will focus on increasing the number of community college students taking a full load of classes and adopting reforms that allow them to complete their remedial work while earning college credit — a break from the typical model in which students first take remedial classes and then are placed in college-level classes. Research suggests allowing students to take college-level courses with additional support leads to higher transfer and graduation rates.

The Lumina-Kresge money will help the area beef up its data systems so that the colleges can share information on student progress and pinpoint areas where changes to strategy are needed, said Benjamin T. Duran, president of the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium — the organization receiving the grant to oversee these efforts. The money “comes at a good time,” said Duran. “It will allow us to enhance the efforts we’re already undertaking.”

The award to the state’s rural far north will go to five counties, including Shasta, that together cover 26,000 square miles. “We’re very remote and we’re very rural,” said Kate Mahar, dean of effectiveness at Shasta College and chief learning officer at North State Together, the collaborative receiving the money. “We don’t have any public universities in our backyard,” she said, noting that the closest Cal State and UC are hours away by car. Students seeking online options for bachelor’s degrees will be able to partner with two nearby community colleges, giving them campus access to faster internet and tutoring services for the online courses in which they’re enrolled.

The project will include strategies that reward students for their past work and school experiences, converting knowledge they gained on the job towards degree and certificate attainment. The collaborative will also partner with local employers to better address the education needs for the area’s economy, said Mahar.

Asked why not spend the roughly $1.1 million on direct student aid to cover their tuition and living costs, Merisotis said the money wouldn’t be nearly enough to help all the students who could benefit from extra financial support. “We think that this amount of money combined with the expertise that we can provide through a variety of partnerships and technical assistance can leverage much larger change,” he said.

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