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When It Comes To Funding, Community Colleges Have to Emulate Four-Year Schools

California’s community colleges, the largest higher education system in the nation, have launched a three-year campaign to create a $100 million endowment for scholarships.

          The initiative began in May with a $25 million gift from the Bernard Osher Foundation, a San Francisco-based philanthropy that supports higher education and the arts. This fall, as the system’s 109 colleges start raising funds and building alumni networks, the foundation will match contributions, up to $25 million.

The Osher foundation’s total gift of $50 million would be the largest single donation ever to a community college system.

The fundraising campaign comes as the California schools, like those in other states, are facing budget cuts even as enrollment grows. California’s community colleges serve about 2.6 million students a year, the most in the country. More than 60 percent of the students are Black, Hispanic or Asian.       

Kerry Wood, vice president of resource development at the Foundation for California Community Colleges, says that community colleges have to emulate four-year institutions by tapping into private dollars from alumni and philanthropic groups.

“State funding can cover the basics, but people want to see the colleges be more than just basics,” Wood says. “That’s where philanthropy can come in and cover those kinds of goals.”

Endowment scholarships of at least $1,000 will be awarded to students starting in 2009. Officials expect at least 1,250 students to receive scholarships in the first year, and if the endowment reaches its $100 million goal, more than 5,000 students will be awarded scholarships annually. At least 50 percent of the endowment’s investment earnings will be used each year.

In announcing his foundation’s donation, businessman Osher said he hoped as many students as possible could continue their education without worrying about the cost.

The Foundation for California Community Colleges, which develops programs and services for the state’s two-year schools, will help to coordinate fundraising efforts.

          Some community colleges had started to focus attention on fundraising even before the endowment campaign began.

The matching funds from the Osher foundation will boost their efforts, says Stephani Scott, executive director of the San Mateo County Community Colleges Foundation. This year, the San Mateo organization, which serves three schools, grew its staff from one to three people and hopes to double the $500,000 a year it usually raises.

This fall, San Mateo will start an alumni program, which will include newsletters and social events.

The lack of alumni networks have been among the biggest challenges to fundraising. Alumni participation in fundraising at two-year schools is at 1.5 percent, whereas 23.3 percent of alumni chip in at four-year baccalaureate colleges, according to the Council for Aid to Education, which conducts annual surveys on private giving.

Scott says community college alumni may be more willing to give now, if encouraged. Businesses are looking to graduates to fill their work force, she says, and universities are accepting more transfers.

More alumni “are speaking about their experiences with pride,” Scott says. “We have the opportunity to leverage that and to get them together.”

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