Sometimes it takes a wakeup call to get us to appreciate the special things in our midst.  

 I believe that community colleges are right up there among those special things. The wakeup call came recently in the form of the president’s stated uncertainty about the role of these institutions in American education. ”I don’t know what that means, a community college,” President Donald Trump told a crowd in Richfield, Ohio. “Call it ‘vocational and technical.’ People know what that means. They don’t know what a community college means.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, responded accordingly: “For people like me who work in them, (the president’s) sentiments are particularly disheartening because they reveal a deep misunderstanding about the benefits that community colleges provide at a moment when they are desperately needed.”   

As president of Woodbury University, a small, private, nonprofit institution in Southern California – one that draws a large number its students from the community college system – I concur, and I believe now is an opportune time to have this conversation.

It’s important to grasp the structure of our higher education system. California, like most states, has a three-tier system of public higher education. On the first tier are the 114 California Community College campuses with more than 2.1 million students working on certificate programs and two-year associate degrees. (That, by the way, makes it the largest system of higher education in the United States.) On the second tier are the 23 California State University campuses with 478,640 students working on bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and on the third, the 10 University of California campuses with 238,000 students working on undergraduate through doctorate degrees.  

The numbers are especially impressive because they underscore just how thoroughly community colleges touch our lives. One in every five community college students in the nation attends a California community college. Three out of every 10 Californians ages 18-24 are currently enrolled in a community college.

Nationally, community colleges are every bit as popular. According to the College Board, which tracks trends in higher education, in 2014 more than 40 percent of all undergraduate students were enrolled in a community college, which, all told, number more than 1,100 colleges across the United States. 

California community colleges offer associate degrees and short-term job training certificates in more than 175 fields, and more than 100,000 individuals are trained each year in industry-specific workforce skills. Where UC campuses are research-centric, the California community colleges and CSU campuses are teaching-centric. Many of the programs at California community colleges are vocational or offer apprenticeship programs in collaboration with industry. As such, they are considered a key resource for workforce and economic development.

As Alia Wong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “the erroneous assumption (the president) made in his speech was that community colleges and vocational schools haven’t been able to and can’t exist alongside each other – a misunderstanding that further under-appreciates an already underappreciated component of American education.”

The California community college system has been the key to facilitating upward mobility for our citizens. The “ROEI” – the return on education investment, if you will – is remarkable. Collectively, the California Community Colleges stand as the largest provider of workforce training in the state – and, indeed, in the nation as a whole. For every $1 California invests in students who graduate from college, it will receive a net return on investment of $4.50. Over their lifetimes, Californians with a college degree will earn $400,000 more than their peers with only a high school diploma.

A substantial portion of California community college students transfer each year into the CSU and UC systems. In fact, 29 percent of UC and 51 percent of CSU graduates started at a community college. Going to a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year CSU or UC campus is a low-cost route to a bachelor’s degree since community college tuition is much lower than CSU or UC tuition ($46 per credit at the California Community Colleges vs. $191 at CSU and $421 at UC); and the CSU and UC systems have transfer credit agreements. This combined route is particularly attractive for low-income and disadvantaged students who cannot afford to attend the CSU or UC systems as freshmen. California’s community college system is among the most affordable in the nation. It currently charges residents just $46 per credit, or about $1,100 a year when enrolled full-time.

“My parents don’t want to just throw money around now,” said Pasadena City College student Annie Shahverdian, in a recent New York Times article. “I’m getting a great education at a fraction of the cost.”

 She, along with more than 2 million other California community college students, knows exactly what these institutions mean.  

David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank.