Mike Fong, President of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees  
Photograph courtesy of Courtney Lindberg

I recently read an article that placed outstanding student debt in California at $141.9 billion. The article mentioned that the average student loan balance for California borrowers is $37,428 and it added that between 2008 and 2018, student loan debt across California grew 119%. The article was fantastic and informative, but left me a bit defeated because the data that it shared is daunting and tells a story of post-secondary education that can be overwhelming. In pondering the obstacles for students I wondered what else, I and my colleagues could do to help turn the tide. I then remembered that a good friend of mine, Mike Fong, is spearheading a lot of this work. I decided to meet up with Mike to see what exactly is being done to help students and to get some insight on how we can all assist.

About Mike

Mike is President of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, he grew up in Southern California, attended Castro Elementary School, Griffith Jr. High (back when we still called it Jr. High), and Bravo High School.  Mike also attended L.A. City College and East Los Angeles College before studying at UCLA (Go Bruins!). As President of the Board, Mike, along with his colleagues, sets the policy, budget and oversight for the 9 community colleges of the Los Angeles community college district. He and his colleagues represent approximately 250,000 students in the district and represent a constituency service area of approximately 5,000,000 people.  The L.A. Community College District is the largest community college district in California and one of the largest districts in the country. As President, Mike works with his Board colleagues, with the Chancellor, with the 9 college Presidents and with the faculty at each school, to develop programming and curriculum that meets the needs of industry but also meets students where they’re at.

On Affordability

In relation to affordability, Mike highlighted two partnerships that have been forged with the City of Los Angeles and with Mayor Eric Garcetti.  One is Los Angeles College Promise, a partnership that includes the L.A. Unified School District, which makes two years of community college, free for students in Los Angeles. With the cost of attending community college at about $9,000 per year this is a much needed respite for many students. Another partnership includes the L.A. Department of Transportation which will provide free transportation to community college students on L.A.’s Dash buses starting this fall. Mike said, “We know that tuition is one part of the equation of attending college but there are many more ancillary costs of going to college… this is another cost that students will not have to worry about”. With one less cost to worry about, Mike and his colleagues hope that students will be able to focus on what is most important, their studies. Mike also talked about how the Board is co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 2 along with Assemblymember Miguel Santiago to make the second year of community college free to students across the state. Beyond that, the Board is working with the Community College District Foundation to provide additional resources to historically underrepresented students, first generation students, and students of color. Mike highlighted the work of his Board colleague Gabriel Buelna, who spearheaded fundraising efforts last year that amounted to $1.2 Million dollars in scholarships to support DACA students. Mike suggested that philanthropy can play a bigger role in partnering with the district in supporting students. “We need to do more as a district to really provide additional support for our foundation to raise those dollars from philanthropy, from the philanthropic world, to really make sure that our students have the scholarships and financial aid necessary to succeed”.  

Helping Students Graduate Faster

Another challenge that Mike and his colleagues are tackling is graduating students more efficiently. “We need to make sure that students, when they come to our schools, that their on path to transfer, to get that certificate, whatever their goal is, we want to make sure that we’re meeting their needs”. Mike explained that some students end up extending their stay at community college for various reasons. Either they needed to work full time in addition to maintaining a full course load or they needed to catch up academically to meet graduation requirements. To address the latter, this coming academic year, Mike and his colleagues are supporting Assembly Bill 705 which would allow students to take college-level English and Math, bypassing the potential trap of remedial coursework. “As a district we used to offer courses that were 3,4, or 5 levels below and now we have eliminated those courses this coming academic year”. Mike mentioned that students sometimes get lost in remedial courses so by eliminating these classes and putting more resources into mentoring and tutoring, he and his colleagues are helping students progress faster in their academic career so that they successfully transfer to a four year university or to a successful job quicker.   

On Emergency Student Aid

Emergency Student Aid came up in conversation with Mike and he stated that too many community college students are facing housing insecurity, food insecurity or financial instability and that more needs to be done to help. Mike echoed what studies have indicated time and time again, there are not enough funds available for these efforts and when funds are available, we need to do a better job of promoting them to students. “We need to do more to make sure students who may need these critical services are aware that these services are available…we need to do more to inform our students as to hey, if you are being impacted by economic crisis, that there are resources out here that are here to support you in your journey…we need to make sure that our staff and administration, our counselors, are aware of the programs but also that if students have these issues, that they feel comfortable enough to express these concerns to their counselors to their tutors, to their financial aid staff, that we’re able to help meet these needs”.

Mike, and his colleagues are encouraged by Assembly Bill 943, authored by Assemblymember David Chiu, which would authorize the use of funding for the Student Equity and Achievement Program, for the provision of emergency student financial assistance.  Mike stated that the passage of this bill, with its potential to provide up to $25,000 at each community college campus, would go a long way to helping students encountering critical life events such as a family illness or a loss of employment. One success around food insecurity that Mike and the Board achieved recently was a partnership with Food Forward, a local non-profit organization that rescues 435,000 pounds of surplus produce each week from multiple sources and donates it to over 1,800 hunger relief organizations across Southern California. “We have food pantries at a number or our campuses…Food Forward, an amazing non profit here in the Los Angeles has partnered with the Los Angeles Community College District in providing food resources to our students on our various campuses”.

Preparing Students for the 21st Century Workforce

Preparing students for the ever changing labor market is another task that Mike and his colleagues are working on. “We’re really making sure that our curriculum at the Los Angeles Community College District and our campuses meets the needs of industries.” In order to do so, the district believes that public private partnerships are a key to success and they have secured a collaboration with one of the biggest companies in the world. “Amazon web services has partnered with the Los Angeles Community College District to offer cloud computing certificate programs where Amazon has trained our faculty, flown our faculty to their headquarters in Seattle, to train them in cloud computing curriculum to make sure that we meet the needs of industry”. Mike stated that the district will eventually have this curriculum at all 9 of its campuses and that the 15 unit curriculum (5 classes) will take students just 6 months to a year, to complete.  Once students get that certificate, they’ll be able to compete for jobs that pay at least $60,000 a year to start. Mike reiterated that Amazon and other tech companies need a skilled workforce and that the community college district needs to remain nimble to prepare students for jobs of the 21st century.

The Work Continues

There’s still much to do in post-secondary education to turn the tide in favor of students. We still need to do more to address the crippling cost of textbooks, shocking rates of homelessness, and unacceptable reality of food insecurity.  The L.A. Community College Board of Trustees is commissioning studies, and working on policy to address these issues and we at the Michelson 20MM Foundation are looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labor. Especially when it’s done with the sincerity and passion reflected in our conversation with President Fong. Of great importance was Mike’s message around what we all can do to help.  “We really need to make sure folks are engaged, and know what’s happening, we look forward to developing additional partnerships with industry partners and also philanthropy to really make sure that we provide the additional resources for our students to succeed”. Mike also shared a mantra that he and his fellow Board trustees embrace that I think we can all put into practice; to do everything with the goal of embracing the hopes and aspirations of all students, trying to do everything we can, to support them in their higher education journey.

Author: Miguel Leon is a Program Officer at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, focusing on access and success

Michelson 20MM and its initiatives are made possible by the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson, M.D. and his wife, Alya Michelson.