Rodriguez Champions Community Colleges

By M. Rossi – How do community colleges deliver social and economic mobility for their students? On April 9th, 2018, UC Davis alum Francisco Rodriguez presented hard data, successful strategies, and valuable lessons from his own experience as chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Speaking at the invitation of the UC Davis Forums on the Public University and the Social Good, Rodriguez opened with his first lesson: “Don’t confuse who you are with what you do.” Looking into the large audience of his alma mater, Rodriguez proclaimed that UC Davis is fertile ground for the students who are looking for something larger to do. As he glanced around the room at many former colleagues, he noted in both Spanish and English, that Davis faculty, students, and staff served as both his pride and his inspiration. 

He also said that community colleges are the most egalitarian institutions—the equivalent a modern-day Ellis Island—where all are welcome. “For many of our students, it is their first chance to go to college. For some, it is their only chance.”

Driving social and economic mobility

To situate his talk—titled “Community Colleges: Modern Day Engines for Economic and Social Mobility”—Rodriguez presented a series of graphs, sourced from Pew Research, the US Department of Education, and the Census Bureau. Public Elementary and Secondary enrollment is projected in 2060 to be nearly 68% Hispanic, Black, and Asian, in contrast to only 32% white. Of those born into the bottom 20% of income, nearly half who do not earn a four-year college degree will remain there into adulthood, as compared to only 10% of those who earn the degree. While steadily increasing, still far too few students of color complete college with a Bachelor’s or higher—21% Black, 17% American Indian, 15% Hispanic—compared to 51% of Asians and 35% of whites. There is also a vastly polarized portrait of spending per student by institutional type. This all contributes to deep and persistent economic gaps for Latinos and African Americans. In 2009, median income for Blacks and Hispanics was merely 62% of whites. 

While there are well over 900 community colleges in the nation, California is home to 112 of them, serving 2.1 million students, each governed by a locally elected Board of Trustees. Curricula consist of remedial and developmental, career and technical, and university transferable courses. The student profile of L.A. Community College District, the district over which Rodriguez presides, is one of diversity: more than 56% Latino, more than 22% non-native English speaking, more than 51% below the poverty line, and more than 72% attending part-time. In terms of transfers, three of 10 UC students and five of 10 CSU students come from a community college.

Rodriguez made the case that community colleges drive the social and economic mobility of state and national economies. Regarding the employment pipeline, he stated that adding jobs to the economy is not enough, since few can benefit from the state’s economic growth if they lack the education or degree to take advantage of new job creation.

Strategies and partnerships

Rodriguez has created an institutional culture of student success, where this data drives solution-oriented programs and interventions. Strategies he has envisioned and implemented include:  strengthening transfer and career pathways; designing student support services; streamlining application processes; focusing on early outreach; incentivizing full-time enrollment; engaging in course-to-course articulation; and co-sponsoring legislation. AB 190, one such piece of legislation, is known as the California Promise. The movement is a guarantee of one year of tuition-free education for all students who enroll full-time and apply for state and federal aid. He described these as the students “living around the edges.” The movement is a way to pull them in and center their lives.

He also values collaborations and partnerships with both the community at large and business and industry. LACCD Dream Resource Center supports students and families and helps them navigate the tumultuous environment created by the current federal administration’s immigration policy. Similarly, Rodriguez assessed the school as being good at training and educating but not particularly good at job placement. The Work Source Center was established to address that deficit. Rodriguez leverages Adult Education as a legitimate pathway and point of entry and embraces Anti-Recidivism by forming partnerships with the LA County Office of Education and LA County Probation Department.

“As a leader, you have to be vulnerable and willing to take significant risks, even if it means losing your job.”—Francisco Rodriguez


What has been the cumulative effect? In 2016-17 LACCD transfers reached their highest levels yet, with 7,475 students successfully transferring to a four-year university (a 34% increase over four years). Over this same time period, the number of total awards (degrees and certificates) nearly doubled to 25,037. 

Professional craft, personal values

Since serving as Chancellor, he has focused on improving the student success rate because he believes a democracy cannot reach its fullest potential without ALL being fully enfranchised. Throughout the talk, Rodriguez continuously circled back to a critical piece of this puzzle—the right people. Perhaps the biggest contribution that a leader can make is hiring and promoting individuals who own the issue, are vested in the solution, and who reflect the values of the institution. Responsible for nearly 500 faculty hires, Rodriguez stated that we can signal in who we hire that we care and that students matter. How?, By creating an ethos of caring, an institutional family. He implored attendees to, “Think about who our students are and serve them well.” And after the initial hiring, Rodriguez promoted investing in professional development. 

He insisted that leadership matters. According to Rodriguez, real community college leaders should advocate, connect, disrupt, facilitate, fund, and set the tone. In fact, he said, one of the most important roles of a leader is to be disruptive. “As a leader, you have to be vulnerable and willing to take significant risks, even if it means losing your job.”

He also encouraged attendees to be enthusiastic, and to challenge themselves to find a way to utilize their unique skill sets to advance the public and social good. “Intertwine your professional craft as educators with your personal values.” He urged the audience to reflect, “How are you signaling to students that your program cares and that they matter?” 

Learn more about Francisco Rodriguez.