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Witness Testimony of Dr. Cynthia Azari, Interim Chancellor, Riverside Community College District

Mr. Chairman, committee members, thank you for inviting me to testify this morning regarding the veterans’ services and programs in place at Riverside Community College Districts’ three colleges; and welcome to Riverside City College, an institution with a proud 97-year history serving students and veterans.

When I came before you in Washington, D.C., this past June, I spoke about the current services in place at the colleges and the importance of H.R. 331, and offered several suggested strategies for helping institutions better serve student veterans.

Today, I would like to expand on several points that not only show the level of veterans’ services possible at community colleges, but, I hope, offer some ideas that can be emulated throughout the country at public institutions serving veterans. First, however, I would like to say how pleased we are with the progress of H.R. 331, now part of HR 2481, which was passed in the House of Representatives a week ago today and has now been sent to the Senate. We believe this legislation, which will allow the centralized reporting of veteran enrollment by accredited institutions within the same district, will go a long way toward streamlining key processes used to serve our veterans. As a district and colleges, we thank you for your role in moving this important legislation forward.

Riverside Community College District has been successful in designing and putting into place strong foundations upon which we hope to build additional veterans’ services. Each of our colleges provides the following core services:

  1. A Veterans’ Center where veterans can talk with peer counselors and get educational guidance in a supportive environment among fellow veterans.
  2. Veteran-specific orientation sessions and priority registration, along with a Student Veteran Education Plan.
  3. A district-wide disabled veterans’ services program.
  4. An active Veterans’ Club.

More than 1,200 veterans receive these services at RCCD colleges each semester. In turn, this leads them directly into the classroom; and then to the workroom and/or transfer to the university environment. The approach is proving so successful, that the University of California, Riverside, is using RCCD’s program as a model to shape veterans’ services at that institution.

Of the 1,200 veterans studying at RCCD colleges, 67% are enrolled in one or more career technical classes, with nearly 60% of those selecting a career technical program leading directly to the workplace and the remaining 40% completing associate degrees leading to transfer to a four-year university. Top CTE program selections were in the nursing, administration of justice, computer programming, and business administration fields; popular choices for transfer were math and science, social and behavioral health, and computer information systems.  Attending community college will cost the average full-time veteran/student more than $18,000 a year:

  • $  1,104           Tuition and Fees
  • $  1,710           Books and Supplies
  • $11,268           Off-campus Room and Board ($4,518 if living with parents/commuting                                from home)
  • $  4,275           Miscellaneous Expenses

With its evolution into a multi-college district, RCCD now budgets specifically for veterans programs, separating from the general Admissions & Records budgets. Doing so gives college administrators a truer picture of the staff and financial resources required to serve our veteran population. While RCCD is still in the early stages of this shift, I can report that we are budgeting nearly $400,000 in general funds on veterans’ services--excluding the comparatively small amount of $20,000 in direct funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition to offering traditional academic and career technical classes, RCCD, through its Office of Economic Development (OED), also serves veterans starting or operating small businesses. In 2012, the OED sponsored 25 outreach events, provided 1,550 business-counseling sessions, and directly assisted 461 individuals and 61 veteran-owned small businesses. These services helped veterans and veteran-owned businesses win more than $27 million in contract and subcontract awards.

Adequate funding remains one of the main challenges in implementing more comprehensive veterans’ services and programs at our community colleges. Quite simply, community colleges need more federal funding for veterans, or at least more federal funding released at the local level.

RCCD and our sister community colleges are the Portals to Education for the majority of veterans. Through our mission and our direct education-to-workforce connections and partnerships, we can move veterans more quickly into the workplace or on to four-year institutions for advanced degrees. But we need access to more funding and more services, supplied at the federal level, but administered and delivered at the local level.

This “financial challenge” could be overcome in a fashion similar to how the VA is already implementing broad improvements such as the eBenefits portal, VRAP, and VMET. All of these initiatives are designed to create seamless access and education transitions for veterans, and each depends on a federal-local partnership approach.

In the same way, through the use of federal block grants or grants similar to the Department of Education Title V grants, the VA could provide both capital investment and the pathways to create vibrant, sustainable learning communities for veterans. This model has proven successful in the national Puente Program for Hispanic students and in RCCD programs such as Ujima, Talented Tenth, and Renaissance Scholars for African American students. Right now the VA is doing the outreach through a block grant type of program, letting the colleges do the outreach AND service delivery directly to veterans, so they can actively take advantage of their VA benefits and advance in non-military career and educational endeavors more seamlessly; and with proper support, locally.

Determining how to best serve veterans is a work in progress, but one thing is certain. RCCD and other community colleges across the nation will continue to see an increase in the number of veterans seeking higher education and access to the “American Dream” they pledged and fought to protect.

As educators and elected officials, it is incumbent upon us to help them achieve their dreams.  This is our collective challenge. Riverside Community College District and our three colleges rise to this challenge, but seek to do so alongside all of our sister colleges and in partnership with the Veterans Administration, so that all veterans seeking service can be readily served.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today on this critical national and local issue. I would be happy to take any questions.