Life for community college students in the North State just got a little easier with Tuesday’s announcement of a record-breaking $100 million donation to fund financial aid and scholarships.
The gift from the Chicago-based Jay Pritzker Foundation is intended to support low-income students in three underserved regions of California over a 20-year period. The regions are the Far North, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. Combined, there are 34 community colleges in the three regions. Schools in the Far North include Shasta and Butte College, College of the Siskiyous, College of the Redwoods, Lassen Community College and Feather River College.
“This remarkable philanthropic pledge is the largest for a community college system in the nation,” said Keetha Mills, president and CEO of the Foundation for California Community Colleges, during a Tuesday afternoon teleconference.
“We believe in the power of education to transport lives,” said Dan Pritzker, a trustee along with his wife, Karen, of the Jay Pritzker Foundation. Pritzker, a musician, filmmaker and one of 11 heirs to a $4.6 billion family fortune, said the foundation believes community colleges are a “great under-utilized resource.”
The three targeted regions each have populations with the lowest percentage of adults with college degrees. The COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic recession have added to the challenge students were already facing, according to Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California’s community colleges.
Oakley said it’s his wish that the Pritzker Foundation’s unprecedented donation will challenge other donors to rethink their higher-education giving. “This will go directly to support some of the most talented and under-resourced students” in California, he added.
“It’s very exciting,” agreed Shasta College President Joe Wyse. “As Oakley said, historically community colleges tend to be overlooked in major donations. It’s very exciting to see our system selected for this major donation.”
Wyse said Shasta’s three-county area (Shasta, Tehama and Trinity) has an average of 31 percent of adults with some college but no degree. The statewide average is 22 percent.
Aliyah Hinckley, a freshman at Shasta College, said the financial aid and scholarships “allows us to hope” and offers motivation to keep going. “Scholarships enable students to succeed. The huge cost of college is the first thing we think about before what college to attend or if we’re even able. Those are all negative things and they shouldn’t be. Scholarships bring positivity. Students like me need the help.”
How it works
The Foundation for Community Colleges will oversee the program, Mills said, with individual colleges provided a lot of flexibility to best suit their students’ needs. The first year will focus on providing emergency financial aid with scholarships awarded during the ensuing years.
Scholarships up to $18,500 will be awarded “to cover the true cost of college and help them reach their goals,” Mills said. “Those dollars are truly the difference between fulfilling goals and delaying the dream.”
To qualify, Mills said students must have the fee waiver provided through the California Promise grant (a state-funded waiver of the $46-per-unit fee), carry a class load of 12 units or more and demonstrate a track record that points toward completion of an Associate of Arts degree or transfer to a four-year university.
Wyse said a little more than half of Shasta College’s students qualify for the California Promise fee waiver. Tuition costs are just one of the challenges many community college students face. “For many students, it’s not the fees but transportation, book costs and housing” that can derail aspiring students. “That’s what nice about this program. They make it flexible enough to remain a full-time student and help with living expenses.”
Fulisha Oscar, a criminal justice major at Madera College with plans to attend Fresno State University, said scholarships have transformed her life from that of a high school dropout and teen-aged mother to a confident and contributing member of her community. She offered a tearful thanks to the Pritzkers for their gift.
“This will be greatly appreciated,” said Ahmael McGee, who is his third year of studying nursing at San Bernardino Valley Community College. “It hasn’t been easy. I look forward to seeing the great impact this will have on the community.”
Pritzker, who now lives in California, said he and his wife have long been advocates for education. In 2007 the Jay Pritzker Foundation established a school in Cambodia and Karen Pritzker has served as a trustee in Chicago.
Their interest in community colleges was first sparked by President Obama’s enthusiastic support. That interest intensified after their daughter completed her first year of college. “She did well but she didn’t like school. She switched to a community college, took some biology and chemistry classes and really dove into it. Now she’s majoring in biology at Berkeley,” Pritzker said.
“Karen and I started thinking about a gift and how to do it, and we got to know the Foundation for California Community Colleges. While we were considering this, we heard stories of kids struggling to continue their education and found it very compelling. We decided to push forward.”
For more information on registration, class schedules and financial aid, visit www.shastacollege.edu