When Karina Ocampo immigrated with her family from Mexico to California in 1999, she struggled to learn English.

Out of that struggle emerged her life’s purpose -- she wanted to become a teacher who could help other immigrants learn English. But family and financial obligations forced her to put her dream on hold for a few years.

She eventually enrolled in classes at Fontana Adult School, finding herself surrounded by other students just like her -- with a college dream, but without the means to achieve it.

A new law signed by Gov. Newsom will be a game-changer for people like Ocampo.

It’s called Senate Bill 554, which makes adult education students eligible for free college credit while taking high school equivalency courses in adult schools.

The law, written by Assemblyman Richard Roth, is similar to the state’s existing high school dual enrollment program, which grants free college credit to high school students.

I encourage residents in Fontana and the greater Inland Empire who have dismissed college as a possibility to take a close look at the doors now open to them under this law, visualize what a better life might look like with a college degree -- and then, take action.

SB 554 is a welcome change, because adult education programs primarily serve immigrants, single parents, low income, homeless, incarcerated and other marginalized groups.

The law is very good news for the Inland Empire, where about 19-20 percent of the population currently does not even have a high school diploma. And with the region’s poverty rate at 17 percent, something needs to change.

Remember, SB 554 gives students access to college courses for free, so there’s no need to feel apprehension about college debt. Adults without a high school diploma previously had fewer college financial aid opportunities than those who graduated, but that’s no longer the case.

Some of our residents may have reservations about stepping on a college campus because their high school years were long ago.

Here’s some good news: the college-going age is definitely getting older. The rate of adults between 25 and 34 years old going to college is expected to increase by 11 percent through 2026, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But if that does not offer enough reassurance, SB 554 makes it so that students do not even need to leave their adult school campuses to get college credit. College professors come to their schools and teach, much like college high school dual enrollment programs.

Ultimately, we hope that getting this taste of college life through adult education programs will empower students to continue their college journey either online or on a college campus so they can reach their academic and career goals.

I want residents to know that by returning to school, they’re laying the foundation for a better future for themselves and the generations to follow them. We owe it to our community to do better.

And let’s face it, going back to school may become a necessity for more people in the years to come.

World Education, Inc. estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require training beyond a high school diploma. Currently, about 38 percent of the U.S. workforce has a high school diploma or less.

It’s clear that SB 554 couldn’t have come at a better time.

(Lee McDougal is a member of the Chaffey College Governing Board, representing District 3, which encompasses Fontana.)

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