An affordable higher education option

Welding students at San Diego College of Continuing Education. (Photo: SDCCE)

Chasing her dream of working as a welder, Andrea Jarvis didn’t hesitate to enroll at San Diego College of Continuing Education (SDCCE).

“The college has so much to offer minority women,” Jarvis said. “There is a ton of mentorship here, as well as peer support to do well.”

Jarvis, a 34-year-old millennial and single mother of two young children, is part of a growing movement of students turning toward shorter-term, vocational certificates that lead to solid careers. Which makes SDCCE’s cost-free classes taught by industry veterans an increasingly attractive option.

A growing interest

According to a recently released Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation report, both high school students and adults who are not in college prefer educational pathways that are shorter, cheaper and more directly linked to specific job opportunities – precisely the type pathways that are at the heart of SDCCE.

Nationally, enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges grew by 16% last fall to the highest level since the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018. Enrollment in programs focusing on the construction trades shot up by more than 26%. And the number of students focusing on mechanic and repair technologies increased more than 8%.

The same trend can be seen at the statewide level; at the California Community Colleges, the number of students earning a vocational certificate or degree, or who attained apprenticeship journey status, rose to a record 80,082 in the 2021-22 academic year, which is up 26% from just five years earlier.

Countering cost and skepticism

Myriad factors are behind the movement. Among them:

  • The rising costs of a traditional college degree and growing skepticism about the return on investment (the average federal student loan debt is now at $37,338).
  • A desire for a more hands-on, practical training that leads directly to a stable career.
  • Changing perceptions about working in the trades.
  • Attractive pay (industrial machinery mechanics earn an average of more than $71,000 annually, construction laborers in California earn an average of nearly $62,000 annually and welders earn an average wage of more than $59,000 annually.)

What makes San Diego College of Continuing Education unique, however, is that we offer not just first-class workforce training, but also a starting point on a seamless pathway that is leading students from our free, noncredit, vocational education options to our for-credit sister colleges in the San Diego Community College District. Buoyed by SDCCE’s award-winning Noncredit to Credit Alignment Lab (NCAL) Project (A Framework to Equity for Noncredit Students), students interested in transferring – from those enrolled in vocational programs to those taking ESL and citizenship courses – are supported with academic counseling and help with educational planning in their transition to San Diego City, Mesa or Miramar colleges. We began the project by focusing on healthcare and child development pathways, and nearly one-third of 183 healthcare students earning a certificate of completion subsequently transitioned to City College.

“This is just the beginning of my career in healthcare,” said one student responding to a survey. “So grateful for the free tuition and all the resources you provide,” said another. “Excellent experience and team so far.”

Continuing to move forward

Programs such as these are a reason SDCCE is responsible for pumping approximately $250 million into the regional economy annually, and why our annual alumni impact has surpassed $209 million.

Our business, labor and community partners understand the impact we’re having. That’s why the state of California is providing the College of Continuing Education a $1-million grant to work with our regional adult education partners in expanding pathways for English-language learners to embark on in-demand healthcare careers. That’s the reason why the Hyundai and Kia dealerships housed at the Mile of Cars in National City recently donated six pallets of car parts valued at a few hundred thousand dollars to support students at the SDCCE’s automotive program. That’s the reason why a Texas-based nonprofit last fall awarded us a $1.2-million grant to double the size of our welding program and expand program facilities as part of a comprehensive effort addressing a shortage of skilled workers.

And those partnerships and support provide opportunities for students like Andrea Jarvis to find their own paths to success.

“San Diego College of Continuing Education provides a shot to people from all walks of life, coming from financial hardships, from being a teenager and getting out of high school, to older people looking to chase their dreams later in life. I really feel like this school has a lot to offer at little or no cost.”

About the Author

Tina King
Tina M. King, Ed.D., is president of the San Diego College of Continuing Education.
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