The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic has triggered financial hardship for many California’s community college students to cover the costs of housing, food and other living expenses.

And on Tuesday, the Jay Pritzker Foundation made an unprecedented donation — the largest ever to a community college system in the country — a 20-year, $100 million pledge to provide scholarships to California students facing unexpected financial hardships.

“This unparalleled level of support for our students will be life-changing,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 116 community college system. “I hope this will challenge other donors throughout the country to rethink higher education giving and re-examine the focus on selective, four-year institutions. This gift will go directly to support some of the most talented and under-resourced students in America.”

In the first year of the 20-year pledge, 34 community colleges in the Inland Empire, the Central Valley and the Far North regions with the lowest percentage of adults who have college degrees will receive $150,000 each. In the Far North region, which is home to six community colleges and includes Humboldt, Siskiyou and Shasta counties, only 10% of people have an associate’s degree and 25% have a bachelor’s degree, according to a July 2020 report from California Competes, a nonprofit focused on improving graduation outcomes.

Dan Pritzker, president of the Jay Pritzker Foundation, and his wife, Karen, said they’ve spent decades focused on improving education globally and were inspired by President Barack Obama’s efforts to promote community colleges nationally. But they were spurred to action after seeing firsthand the effect of a community college experience on their daughter.

Their daughter spent her first year of college at a private university on the East Coast but, “she didn’t like the school,” Dan Pritzker said. After signing up for a couple of courses at a California community college, “she loved it, she enjoyed the professors and the kids, and she decided to stay and complete … that really gave us an up-close view of what community colleges had to offer students.”

At the same time, the Pritzkers read a number of news articles about community college students combating hunger, homelessness and fighting to stay in school. The foundation, which is named after Pritzker’s father who is the founder of Hyatt Hotels, is focused on improving equity.

Community colleges: ‘A great underutilizes resource’

“We believe community colleges are a great underutilized resource that can help close the widening education gap, income gap and make our country more equitable,” Pritzker said.

Although California’s colleges have some of the lowest tuition in the country, non-tuition costs such as rent, transportation and other living expenses can create financial barriers that prevent students from graduating or transferring to a university. And this year, with the coronavirus pandemic, many of these problems have exacerbated.

A survey of nearly 50,000 community college students between May and June found 57% reported they faced homelessness, food or housing insecurity. The situation was worse among students of color, with 71% of Native Americans, 65% of Black, 63% of Latinx and 61% of Asian students reporting they faced at least one basic needs insecurity since the start of the pandemic.

And 53% of the students surveyed reported their income had decreased, with 41% saying they had experienced an employment change because of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact

“My finances due to COVID are a struggle,” said Ahmael McGee, a nursing major at San Bernardino Valley College who spoke during the press conference.  “I’ve been furloughed. My family is furloughed and that doesn’t matter. School expenses still exist.”

There are people who are intelligent, diligent and willing to go to college, “but due to finances they’re unable to,” he said.

The 34 colleges identified to receive the funding can provide students with emergency financial aid because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact. Those colleges together enroll about 334,000 students. In future years, the colleges can use a combination of scholarships and emergency financial aid to give students up to $18,500 per student per year to cover a wide range of expenses such as textbooks, transportation, housing, childcare and food.

Keetha Mills, president of the Foundation of California Community Colleges, said the donation would keep students enrolled by addressing the immediate financial needs that could prevent them from delaying their academic goals.

Early enrollment numbers from the community colleges also show that students have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last month, Oakley said systemwide they have seen a 5% to 7% decrease in enrollment. Information provided to EdSource from some colleges indicates a wide range of declines, from 3.8% to 20%.

“The decline in enrollment we’re seeing is specifically tied to the economic distress our students are feeling because they’ve lost jobs, lost (work) hours, are having to support family” Oakley said. “This gift will help those students who have had to take less units, or who are thinking of stopping out for a semester while they find work. This will give them the financial resources they need to finish.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Ashley A. Smith, EdSource