April has been designated as California Community College Month in recognition of the vital role community colleges have on the overall educational and economic health and development in the state of California.

The California Community College system affords citizens of California the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of higher education through general education, specialized skills and expanded employment opportunities. The 115 community colleges in California, including Bakersfield College, Cerro Coso Community College and Porterville College, which make up the Kern Community College District (KCCD), serve more than 2.1 million students, making it the largest system of higher education in the U.S.

As part of the California Community College system, KCCD colleges offer open admission, low enrollment fees, financial assistance, academic and career guidance and support services for students, in addition to an outstanding educational experience from skilled, caring and accomplished faculty. Community colleges are an essential resource, with a direct impact on economic growth and prosperity for the communities they serve. Community colleges also provide multiple cultural opportunities to both the students and general public through activities offered by fine arts programs and athletic events.

KCCD is geographically one of the largest community college systems in the nation. Serving 35,000 students in parts of five counties, the district covers over 24,800 square miles. Each KCCD college offers a variety of benefits to students and residents, and each has unique qualities and programs that differentiate it from the others.

Bakersfield College serves more than 25,000 students. In addition to its academic and technical skills programs, BC offers a dual enrollment program for local high school students to get a jump start on their college degree by offering courses that count for both high school and college credit. Recently the college has been recognized nationally and by the state for its Guided Pathways, Rural Initiatives and Early College programs.

Cerro Coso Community College based in Ridgecrest offers five instructional sites and serves almost 5,000 students. Cerro Coso’s Incarcerated Student Education Program has seen tremendous success and growth since its inception in 2015 and has proven to be a unique approach to providing rehabilitation and safer communities. This program has received national and state recognition for its student success rates and impact in lowering inmate recidivism.

Porterville College enrolls over 4,000 students and is proud to be an Achieving the Dream Participating Institution. Focusing on the importance of connections across the community in order to link educational and workforce development services, Achieving the Dream is helping address transitional barriers and pathway development to increase student success and community access to career readiness services. This program has received state and national recognition.

These and other innovative programs offered by the colleges have resulted in the district moving the student success needle forward. The colleges have had record numbers of students receiving their AA degree, certificates of achievement and job skills and transfers to four-year universities. This is only the beginning, as each college is focused on further increasing student success in their communities.

I'm proud of the contributions the three colleges make in the lives of students and their communities. Each college has its unique "personality" based on its location and student population, and they all have special programs that provide multiple benefits to their communities. Their common goal, of course, is to provide educational pathways that lead to success for each student, whether their goal is to complete a two-year degree, technical certificate, or transfer to complete a four-year degree. We are proud to be the educational foundation on which so many can build as they move forward to productive and successful careers and lives.

Thomas Burke is chancellor of the Kern Community College District.