UC Merced, West Hills College share grant for college preparation

MERCED - In each of the next five years, the University of California, Merced, and West Hills College Coalinga will each receive $325,000 to help improve the college-going rate of Central Valley students.

UC Merced will work in partnership with West Hills College Coalinga, and share a $3.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help prepare community college students for UC Merced. The Title V grant is designed to help colleges and universities enhance and expand their capacity to serve Hispanic and low-income students by helping strengthen academic quality, institutional stability and management.

Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey and West Hills Chancellor Frank Gornick said the grant money will fund academic support centers, tutors, faculty collaborations and summer bridge activities designed to help more students earn college degrees.

In the Central Valley, between 12 and 14 percent of adults hold college degrees, compared to 29 percent statewide, according to the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium and the California Post Secondary Education Commission.

One reason is because the Valley has a higher high-school drop-out rate than many other regions, and those who do graduate are less likely to go to college than many of their peers. They are also less prepared for college-level work when they do go, the consortium's studies show.

"This grant couldn't be more important," Chancellor Tomlinson-Keasey said. "UC Merced is dedicated to helping more Valley students reach college and succeed at their higher education goals."

UC Merced is aiming for designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, a title West Hills carries. To earn that designation, a school must have a Hispanic student population of at least 25 percent, and half of those students must meet low-income classifications. UC Merced meets or exceeds those criteria, however, has not yet gained full accreditation - also a requirement, said Jorge Aguilar, Director of UC Merced's Center for Educational Partnerships.

Through the Center for Educational Partnerships, hundreds of Valley parents have learned how to get their sons and daughters on the college track and help keep them there. Aguilar said the grant with West Hills College will help further that mission.

"It's a very exciting partnership," Aguilar said.

The 75-year-old West Hills College serves the west side of the San Joaquin Valley from Firebaugh to Kettleman City. Almost 60 percent of its students are Hispanic, but only about 4 percent of the adults in that region hold college degrees. The community college plans to use some of its grant funds to establish an endowment fund, add library books and resources and update campus technology.

The grant money is part of the $20.5 million awarded to 33 Hispanic Serving Institutions around the country. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said it's incumbent upon schools to continue encouraging Hispanic students to improve their educational levels so they will be ready for the challenges of the future.

That's especially important in the changing, growing Central Valley. The Valley must provide college-educated employees for companies wishing to relocate here. And college-educated citizens will remain here if jobs that use their talents and skills are plentiful, Tomlinson-Keasey said.

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