“Because our future economic well-being is so dependent upon education … we can no longer afford to cut higher education.” Those words were spoken by Gov. Schwarzenegger last week during his annual State of the State address. Overall, in the context of deep and painful cuts to so many valuable programs, the governor’s budget proposal was a win for higher education, which saw baseline funding mostly protected and even modest enrollment growth provided for.

The governor’s emphasis on the link between education and prosperity is accurate. A college degree increases an individual’s expected lifetime earnings by more than $1 million, improves their employability and puts a satisfying and socially valuable career within their reach. 90 percent of the fastest growing job categories now require a post-secondary education. California’s public higher education system — especially our community colleges with their open access policies — opens the doors of higher learning to millions of students. Industrious Californians have used this opportunity well: in great part thanks to its highly educated workforce, California has become a leader which other states look to for innovative technology, solutions to environmental problems, arts and culture.

In the current economic climate, it would be comforting to know that we still have this ace up our sleeve; but unfortunately our competitive advantage is vanishing. Think tanks estimate that California needs about 55-60 percent of our population college-educated to compete economically with other states and nations in 2025. We expect to be at about 43 percent – drastically less than we need to even meet our own requirements for skilled workers.

Graduates from our 110 community colleges could be a big part of the solution, using their skills and knowledge to repower our economy. However, currently only 24 percent of community college students who intend to earn an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year school are successful in doing so within six years. This is very troubling. We simply can’t afford for so many community college students to fall through the cracks.

One thing that could help more students succeed is more time to study. It’s well known that community college fees are low, but less well known that fees comprise only about 5 percent of the total cost of attendance. So to make ends meet, most community college students work. A recent CALPIRG survey found that students worked an average of 23 hours per week, leaving themselves too little time to focus on academics. This is no small problem when three out of five community college students are underprepared for college and need remediation. They have to focus on academics if they are to succeed.

To buy back some of those work hours for study, community college students need more financial aid. Part of the solution is to simply increase the number of students who apply by making sure that all students understand the basics of financial aid and have the help they need to navigate the process. But part of the solution is also maintaining robust funding for those programs. In this respect, the governor’s budget, which suspends all new competitive Cal Grants, was troubling. These grants are already limited in number: Last year 245,400 qualified applicants competed for 22,500 grants. These are also the only Cal Grants available for students more than one year out of school, and previous analysis indicate that recipients of competitive grants have lower incomes and higher grades than other Cal Grant recipients.

Of course, community college students face many challenges in getting to graduation, but working so hard that they can’t make the grade academically should not be one of them. Why set students up for failure when so much is riding on their success?