From Factory To Silicon Valley C-Suite: My Community College Journey
By Don Proctor, founder and CEO of Bk97 Digital and experienced Silicon Valley executive, is a guest contributor for the College Promise Campaign
“If you’re smart, can’t you go to any college you want?”
The simple answer is no. You can perhaps get accepted to any college you want, but that doesn’t mean you can attend. The cost of college is often out of reach for far too many students.
I know this from personal experience. Though I worked hard and earned excellent grades in high school, my middle-income family could not afford to send me to a four-year college. My parents made too much money to qualify for financial aid but not enough to pay for my tuition and other expenses.
While I graduated near the top of my high school class and had a high SAT score, a four-year college was not an affordable option for me. I think I received every academic scholarship I could find but the total was about $1,500. Nice, but not enough to cover even the application fees at some colleges. Some would be surprised to learn that Harvard had, at the time, both an application fee and a pre-application fee.
So my undergraduate journey took eleven years. For the first nine years after high school, I worked in a factory and went to school at night. Altogether, I attended six community colleges in Southern California before moving north and graduating from UC Berkeley in 1991. I am proud of my community college education. And I am thankful that these high-quality, flexible, and affordable institutions gave me the academic foundation to build my future.
Why did I attend six community colleges? Because that was the only way I could piece together an education while working full-time during the day.
I was able to take evening classes at various community colleges which provide flexible schedules to accommodate people who work full-time. Sometimes, I discovered, you have to shop around a bit to get the classes you need. It turns out that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I picked up a couple of foreign languages along the way. And calculus, physics, and biology. Psychology and theology. Computer science—it was punch cards back then, but it turned out to be a lucky break for me later. I think most people would agree that community colleges offer the advantage of a broad education—something in addition to workforce development.
If I had started my education at a four-year school, my choices would have been different. I once took at an evening class in engineering at a four-year university where a guidance counselor suggested that I get a loan, ask my parents for money, or find a job on the night shift so that I could complete my core curriculum during the day. None of these were viable options for me. Community college was a much better choice.
I have been blessed with what most people would say is a very successful career. I have built three separate billion-dollar businesses in the Silicon Valley, teach at two universities, and serve on four nonprofit boards. I’ve been able to send each of my three daughters to the colleges of their choice.
I know that I could not have achieved all of this without my community college education. My story is a reminder that community colleges are not only resources for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or students whose high school grades did not let them qualify for a four-year school. They are also an essential resource for students from middle-class families who need to earn a living while pursuing their education.
As an executive in the US technology industry, I can attest that our nation is facing a crisis of higher education. We are not preparing enough students for the education and training they need for our country’s future. Virtually every large Silicon Valley company must recruit many of its engineers from overseas. Other countries are preparing their students for the 21st century, and we are not.
Why? Because the rising cost of college is putting higher education out of reach for far too many Americans, including students from middle-class families. If we want our nation to lead the world in innovation and productivity, we must make higher education accessible to anyone willing to put in the work.
One small example here in the Silicon Valley is that some truck drivers’ jobs will very soon be displaced by self-driving trucks. This is coming faster than most people think. Many more jobs will be created than lost, but this is of little comfort to those who lose their jobs. Might community colleges be part of the answer?
Fortunately, there is a way to do that. It’s called College Promise, a national non-partisan initiative calling on communities and states to make the first two years of community or technical education as universal and free as high school has been for a century. This is a bold proposal to move our primary education system from K-12 to K-14, as many other countries have.
Throughout the US, communities and states are finding ways to cover tuition and fees for students to complete some education beyond high school, whether that’s an associate degree, a technical certificate, or credits to transfer to a four-year college or university. As a Silicon Valley executive and a proud alumnus of many community colleges, I support this movement because I know it gives students an affordable opportunity to pursue the education they need.
I have no complaints about my educational history. It was a lot of hard work, but things turned out well for me. With College Promise initiatives, we have the opportunity to make it not-so-hard for our children, and our children’s’ children. Please join me in supporting College Promise.