Community colleges tapping alumni to close funding gap

File: Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
File: Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

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Cerritos College is doing something new this year: hiring its first ever director of alumni relations.

“The first thing that I would like the new director to do,” said college President Jose Fierro, “is actually to create an official database of students or graduates and then start sorting that database by fields.”

Fierro recognizes this is a baby step, but he thinks it's an important one. As the college began to compile its list, for example, it discovered that California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon attended Cerritos College.

Other community colleges in the state are also using the star power of notable graduates to connect students to their two-year alma maters. The state’s community college office runs a banner that says writer Amy Tan attended San Jose City College, actress Annette Benning attended San Diego Mesa College and California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye attended Sacramento City College.

Those schools  are joining a growing list of California community colleges hoping to capitalize on the alumni. 

By one count, about one third of the state’s community colleges have alumni organizations, many of them started in the last few years, after the 2008 recession and ensuing state budget cuts. The hope is that these new alumni organizations will help students by raising money for scholarships and bringing professional graduates back to campus to talk to students. 

“I think community colleges have historically been reliant on taxpayer dollars for their sources of funding,” said Nancy Pryor, director of communications at the Foundation for California Community Colleges. “And institutions of higher education are looking for other ways to augment and support the needs of their students and look for members of the community [and] local businesses.”

Some community colleges are further along than others and can tap into a much larger and more prominent alumni base.

“We had [film director] Tamra Davis come recently to campus. She talked about her career after leaving [Los Angeles City College], never went beyond LACC,” said Carole Wenger, director of alumni relations and development at Los Angeles City College. “We had Kevin Tent, who’s a film editor, and he came and taught a class on film editing and it was well attended with over one hundred students. We had Kerry James Marshall here, he’s an alum, he’s an African American artist. He talked to the students. It was packed.”

Los Angeles City College has been reaching out to alumni for over a decade. Alumni fundraising helped the college’s foundation raise $560,000 last academic year that it distributed to 1100 LACC students.

That’s still a small portion of what big four year universities raise through their alumni groups. UCLA raised nearly $500,000 in one crowdfunding campaign last year.

That’s where the Foundation for California Community Colleges is stepping in to help. It’s planning worshops about alumni fundraising at its next annual conference in Anaheim.

“We’ve got a couple of interesting pieces on alumni outreach, one of which includes things like crowd funding, or helping work with existing community college students to employ them to do calling campaigns,” Nancy Pryor said.