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Witness Testimony of Dr. Cynthia Azari Ed.D., President Riverside City College

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify today regarding Veterans’ services and programs at public colleges and the opportunities for veterans to be successful in higher education and preparing for the civilian workforce. My name is Dr. Cynthia Azari and I am President of Riverside City College, which is located in the Inland Empire of Southern California—a region that includes March Air Reserve Base (MARB), home to the Air Force Reserve Command’s largest air mobility wing and units from the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, and Air National Guard.

Riverside City College and its sister institutions, Moreno Valley College and Norco College, are each fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and part of the Riverside Community College District. The District encompasses a 450 sq. mile in southwestern Riverside County (adjacent to Los Angeles and Orange counties) and serves 1.4 million people. In addition to March Air Reserve Base, our service area includes the high-tech Naval Surface Warfare Center in Corona, and the expanding Riverside National Cemetery.

It was important that I put the District and Colleges in context for the subcommittee because as of July 1, I will take office as interim chancellor. That upcoming responsibility informs my testimony today.  

Historically one of California’s fastest growing regions, the Inland Empire was hit hard during the national recession, which resulted in significant loss of jobs, particularly in the real estate, construction and manufacturing areas. This followed an earlier sustained period of blue- and white-collar unemployment due to the BRAC realignments of March Air Force Base, Norton Air Force Base, and other Southern California military installations. Region-wide unemployment affects veterans as well as civilians, putting pressure on public community colleges to offer more educational advancement, career technical, and job retraining opportunities. We still have the highest level of unemployment in the nation. Today, nearly 150,000 veterans reside in Riverside County—the majority within RCCD’s service area.

As a public community college district, RCCD is an open access institution that serves a dynamic and diverse student population and communities: approximately 47% Hispanic, 27% White, 10% African American, 8% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% other or multiple ethnicities. The area’s college-going rate hovers between 24-26%, well below state and national averages.

In 2012, RCCD colleges’ enrollments exceeded 33,000 students a semester. Like other California community college districts, we have no local authority to set tuition rates. The exception is with non-resident tuition, which RCCD chose to set at the lowest rate afforded by the State Education Code. Otherwise, tuition levels are mandated by the State of California. Currently, that tuition is $46 per credit, which is lower than most, if not all the other 49 states. Still, college access and affordability is a problem for a majority of our students. More than 60% qualify for need-based financial aid such as a Board of Governor’s Waiver or Pell Grant. This is not unexpected given that the average household income in Riverside County is $68,500 and the average annual wage $36,924—12% and 23%, respectively, below state averages.

Having given you a brief overview of our District, the populations we serve, and some of the socio-economic factors affecting students, I would like to turn to the subject at hand: veterans.
 
Some 1,200 veterans attend our three colleges each semester, roughly 3.5% of the District’s total enrollment. That doesn’t seem like a lot of students. But at a community college, every student is important. Why? Because, quite frankly, we are the first, last and best chance for most students. Being open to all, we are expected to serve all. We take that responsibility seriously.

Veterans come to us with all the challenges faced by other students: academic unpreparedness, lack of a family tradition of college, financial and other difficulties. But they also are dealing with issues as a result of military service. And these issues differ greatly from those experienced by a traditional college student or even a civilian re-entry student. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a recognized issue; the VA estimates that 90% of combat veterans suffer its effects at some point. But veterans may also have other serious conditions such as elevated feelings of shame, anxiety and depression. As a result, colleges must serve veterans differently. That means new programs and services and even rethinking the basics such as “How do veterans effectively transition into a civilian life from military duty?” and “How can we best introduce veterans to college life?”

I am proud to say that Riverside City College and the District are advancing strongly on this front.

Over the past two years, our colleges have developed several programs and services to better serve student veterans. These include:

-    Each of RCCD’s three colleges is authorized to certify veterans to receive benefits.
-    Each college has Veterans’ Resources Centers, either in place or in development, to assist with GI Bill and other VA education benefits and guidelines.
-    Orientation sessions are specifically designed for veterans.
-    “Veteran friendly” college guidance courses are offered now and, in the future, a Boots to Books Guidance 48 class.
-    Every student veteran receives a Student Veteran Education Plan.
-    Every veteran receives priority registration and priority transcript assessment and processing.
-    The District maintains a disabled veterans’ services program.
-    Comprehensive Veterans’ Services brochures, websites, and other VA and local agency information/fact sheets and consumer information are distributed to student veterans.
-    A full-time Veterans’ Services Coordinator (RCC) and designated Veterans’ Services Counselors (all colleges) are available.
-    Student Financial Services has an assigned liaison to the Veterans’ Office to assist student veterans.
-    Veterans’ Services Committees coordinate student services support to better address student veterans’ needs.
-    Each college has a Veterans’ Club. In the future, we will offer Veterans Serving Veterans mentor programs.
-    RCC hosts an annual 5k Veterans’ Run and other activities in support of veterans in STEM scholarships, and all of our colleges provide veteran-oriented activities.

As mentioned above, one of the ways we help our student veterans is through scholarships and seeking external resources beyond state funding. In 2011, the RCCD Foundation received a $1.5 million endowed estate gift from a U.S. Navy veteran and his wife specifically to provide scholarships for student veterans. These funds are used primarily for books, equipment and other academic expenses. Over the last three years RCCD colleges also have secured 43 competitive federal grants, totaling $34.6 million. Among those is a million dollar grant that directly helps disabled veterans. Sixteen of the grants are designed to educate and prepare students for in-demand job fields, and the rest seek to improve access, retention and success rates for all students. Equally important, in 2011 RCC was one of 14 community colleges statewide to receive a Chancellor’s Office grant to open a Veterans’ Resources Center.

One of the things we never forget is that a one-size education does not fit all of our students. While I can speak to several transfer success stories such as U.S. Marine Corps veteran Justin Scott who received a full scholarship as a “Cyber Corps” applicant at a California State University campus to former serviceman Antonio Silva who received two scholarships to study biochemistry at a four-year university to veteran Louise Daniels who received a full scholarship to a University of California campus to study physics, I also want to assure members of the subcommittee that we have a growing number of student veterans earning associate degrees and career certificates before heading directly into the workplace.

Currently, RCC offers 73 different programs leading to certificates with 80% of those in core career technical areas. District-wide, more than 110 programs lead to two-year degrees or certificates. This past year, over 170 student veterans earned either a two-year degree or certificate at an RCCD college, with roughly 10 percent earning multiple degrees or certificates.

Having comprehensive support services and programs in place for student veterans, as well as a wide variety of academic paths available, provides a strong foundation for success. But if student veterans are unaware these services and programs exist, few concrete results rise from those foundations.

We applaud the efforts of Congress and the White House to ensure that veteran students have access to the best, and most comprehensive, information available so they can make informed education decisions.  HR 4057 and Executive Order 13607 clearly outline directions and requirements intended to secure, establish and maintain standards and consistency regarding access and educational services provided for student veterans.

We believe that a couple of additional steps could help improve the flow of information and the experiences of student veterans.

1.    Refine the VA’s eBenefits portal to allow colleges and universities to directly input veteran-specific or relevant information. This would provide wider and more seamless access to student veteran-relevant information versus relying solely on a higher education institution’s ability to outreach directly to veterans. It would also permit veterans to readily access a comprehensive database of educational options available to fit their specific interests and needs. One major benefit is that the information presentation would be standardized, permitting veterans to directly compare academic services and programs offered within their geographical area. In addition, this system would permit a more accessible and comprehensive review by VA administrators and others to assess compliance with HR 4057 and Executive Order 13607.
2.    Adapt VMET, Verification of Military Experience and Training Program, to provide guidelines to help accredited colleges evaluate standards for granting equivalency for credit courses. Right now, VMET is oriented toward generating transcripts and providing job search support. By eliminating course evaluation obstacles, we are confident that colleges can improve education-to-career pathways for student veterans.
3.    Change VRAP, Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, by extending the benefits from a one-year period to two years. The majority of our student veterans attend college part-time making it difficult, if not impossible, to complete a certificate program in 12 months.
4.    Increase federal grant opportunities specifically designed to address ways in which higher educational institutions provide services to veterans. While the GI Bill provides the veteran with a way to pay for his or her education, these competitive grants would provide a means for colleges and universities to expand veteran-specific services and programs, develop new veteran-oriented initiatives, and establish best practices and models that could be replicated across the nation. What is desperately needed is funding mechanisms—similar to Title V grants—that would assist colleges in developing and advancing student veteran learning communities.
5.    Pass H.R. 331. Authored by Subcommittee Ranking Member Mark Takano and Congressman Ken Calvert, H.R. 331 would permit the centralized reporting of veteran enrollment by accredited educational institutions within the same district. We understand the bill is scheduled for consideration on June 26th.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. On behalf of Riverside City College and Riverside Community College District, I would like to thank the members of the subcommittee for giving me the opportunity to speak today. It has been a great honor. I would be happy to take any questions.