With the subprime mortgage crisis dragging down California's economy, the College's annual State of the Economy Conference on May 7 was subdued this year.
"Californians are a grumpy group of voters and identify the economy as the most important problem," said Jonathan Brown, president of Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.
With a theme of "Education's Role in Regional Success," panelists focused on the state's already strapped education system and how it will cope with a proposed $4 billion budget cut. At elementary and high schools, teachers will receive pink slips and students will squeeze into crowded classrooms, according to Moraga Unified School District Superintendent Rick Schafer.
"California schools' focus right now is not on instruction, but on keeping our doors open," Schafer lamented.
A funding crunch on California's colleges comes at an inopportune time as well, according to Kris Chase, director of Saint Mary's Center for the Regional Economy, who helped organize the sixth annual conference. Higher education is often countercyclical, as people return to school during economic downturns in order to train for new jobs.
"Economic studies consistently show that higher education has a positive impact on living standards," Chase said, explaining that an educated workforce makes a region more attractive to businesses competing in the global economy.
Several presenters encouraged Californians to find creative ways around current impasses in the state's educational system.
Saint Mary's education doctoral student Lindy Khan pointed to Contra Costa County's community schools programs, which she said have been successful in reaching students at risk of dropping out.
"These students do better in places where they feel a greater sense of safety, more personal contact, and a lack of â€˜drama,'" she noted.
David Bank, vice president of Civic Ventures, said his organization's pilot program pairing retiring Baby Boomers with underserved grade school students provides another example of an unconventional educational approach that has reaped rewards.
"This older population is helping kids to read and serving as their confidantes - it's a great model," he said.
Panelists were unanimous in stressing the education sector's vital contribution to the health of the California economy.
"If 2 percent more Californians had associate's degrees and 1 percent more earned bachelor's degrees, California's economy would increase by $1.2 billon and 174,000 new jobs would be created," said Diablo Valley Community College dean Cheryl LeMay.
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