Blake Dressel and Alex Oliveros both were the first in their families to attend—and graduate—college. But finding a clear pathway there, or a “ladder” to success, as Oliveros puts it, wasn’t easy.

They both needed financial help and support navigating all the options available to them, and when other paths seemed closed, they found what they needed at community colleges.

Dressel found his ladder to success at Oregon’s Portland Community College. Oliveros succeeded, too, with a strong start at Angelina Community College in Texas.

Community college was a pivotal moment for Dressel, he said. He’s now earning his master’s degree at Stanford University.

“It really provided that first step to opportunities and gave me a ladder to climb towards success and access to a structured pathway,” he said.

Dressel has plenty of company: about 7.7 million students were enrolled in more than a thousand community colleges across the U.S. in 2019 and 2020. And while Congress’ Build Back Better legislation is still under debate and no longer includes a free community college option, there are other ways governments, schools, communities, and foundations can provide much-needed funding and resources.

I just completed a public policy internship at Lumina Foundation, an organization that works to support those who want to keep learning, with a particular emphasis on students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation students.

Biggest hurdle: cost

Cost was a significant barrier for both Dressel and Oliveros, as it often is for first-generation college students who come from households with median incomes of $37,565 (compared to $99,635 for students whose parents graduated college). Because of this, about 53 percent of first-generation students choose two-year schools compared to 39% of those whose parents had a college degree.

Oliveros said money drew him to Angelina Community College in Lufkin, Texas.

“I didn’t have enough income to go to a (four-year) university,” he said. But because student aid covered most of his community college costs, “I figured it would be a good starting point.”

Despite their vital role in helping students from all walks of life, community colleges get $8,800 less per student in education revenue than four-year institutions, according to the Center for American Progress.

That translates to fewer services at a time when students need them most.

Oliveros needed advice when transferring to a four-year university. His school didn’t have guidance counselors or make them known at the time, so he relied on help from family and friends. Since then, Angelina Community College signed a transfer agreement with Texas A&M University to help students transfer more easily.

A jump-start

How do we help community colleges succeed?

Pell grants are essential, but community colleges need more federal and state funding to enhance services, including emergency funds for student housing, food, and computers. These institutions also need more effective partnerships, including those between schools, businesses, and nonprofits, creating opportunities for graduates.

Take it from Dressel and Oliveros. Many more like them need a jump-start at community colleges to learn, earn, and contribute their talents to a better world.

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