For those who have gone to small colleges for their degrees, Las Positas College measures up to the best of them in terms of academics, faculty and campus appeal.
That appeals to the 9,000 students enrolled there now from Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore whose families have a high percentage of undergraduate and graduate degrees and like the resemblance Las Positas has to their own alma maters.
They like what they see when they visit the 148-acre campus in the hills of Livermore and its architecturally pleasing classroom buildings, sports fields, and a healthy mix of student activities and organizations. Some come from Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties, telling college president Barry Russell that Las Positas' campus atmosphere is more collegiate than at the two-year colleges in their home communities.
"It's just like Cal Poly or Redlands," one student commented, only much closer to home and less expensive.
It's not only the small college appeal; Las Positas College (LPC) also has an active student body with scores of organizations, focusing on music, theater, politics, creative writing and great books. The school's veterans organization attracts men and women from distant states who heard about LPC's dedication to helping veterans from fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and other duty stations.
Working with the Livermore Lab, Las Positas offers advanced programs in work-related engineering technology and accelerated math, with more than 500 veterans coming to the campus every year.
The college will celebrate its 40th anniversary April 17 with a ribbon-cutting for its redesigned and renovated library, one of many campus buildings being built and expanded to accommodate a 12,000-14,000 student enrollment by the end of the decade.
As it is, 93% of all available classroom space at Las Positas is in use during day and evening classes. Even so, Las Positas still has that four-year-college feel that its students and 350 full-time and adjunct faculty like.
"We're not only a top-rated two-year college with a hometown feel, we also serve the community," Russell said. "From our Veterans Center to our newly renovated amphitheater to the Barbara Fracisco Mertes Center for the Arts, we offer the best in academics and also the best the Valley has to offer to community organizations."
Russell said that in the 1960s when the community college system was established in California, the state legislature approved the Civic Center Act which basically determined that as these colleges were funded and established, their campuses would also serve their communities for various events.
Las Positas follows that rule, making its facilities, sports fields, swimming pools and the performing arts center available to Tri-Valley organizations. Throughout the year, the campus is busy with activities by students and public groups, including plays, concerts and related courses.
"Because of our proximity to San Francisco and the very strong performing arts programs at the Bankhead Theater and the Firehouse Arts Center, we have one of the finest performing arts programs in the state," Russell said.
Russell also said his school offers the best chance to successfully transfer to UC Berkeley or another UC campus or one of the Cal State University schools after completing LPC's two-year undergraduate program. According to the state chancellor's office, transfers at Las Positas outpace other community colleges with a 48% transfer rate, compared to 41% statewide.
To the chagrin of students who transfer, many report back to Russell in shock after finding that their chummy 30- to 40-student classrooms at LPC have become 800-student teaching centers at their four-year university.
Russell was hired as LPC's president in 2013, only the sixth president at the college. Before that, he worked for the state chancellor's office in academic affairs and worked with high schools after receiving his doctorate degree from Texas A&M. He was in Sacramento for the recent legislative debates about converting the state's 112 community colleges into four-year institutions, capable of granting bachelor's degrees. In the end, the state allowed 15 of the colleges to offer one degree starting in 2017 as a pilot program.
After campus-wide discussions, Russell opted out of the program, determining that with its accreditation examination coming up this fall and a limited budget, he and the faculty should concentrate on increasing academic standards for freshmen and sophomores and also expanding the college's technical programs.
These include welding, automotive tech, early childhood development, graphics design, video production and other trades where students basically need a two-year technical degree to be able to go directly to careers that are important in the Tri-Valley but don't require bachelor's or master's degrees.
Russell said that 12 of the state's two-year colleges also provide dormitories for on-campus living. Those provisions are especially appealing in more rural areas and for schools that want to attract athletes from distant communities.
"That's not for us," Russell said. "Operating a college with dorms would be a whole different game, not only facilities-wise but making sure we have everything together, such as 24-hour food service and security. It can be a nightmare; we're not going to do that."
Although Las Positas is nearing 40 years old, two-year colleges go back nearly 100 years, Russell said. Those early schools were generally in rural areas, including Modesto and Santa Rosa junior colleges, where local high school districts provided 13th and 14th grades for students without means to travel to four-year colleges and universities.
When the G.I. Bill was introduced after World War II, junior colleges came of age with tens of thousands of veterans receiving their first years of college at these schools. Later, called community colleges because they were still largely more related to local communities than the state, the schools became a major contributor to junior year enrollments at state colleges and universities.
They've also become major economic contributors to the communities they serve.
Las Positas College's annual budget, in excess of $22 million, is one of the Tri-Valley's largest businesses. College alumni have increased earning power and 85% of Las Positas' graduates remain in the Tri-Valley. Add to this the infusion of $225 million in construction projects planned over the next decade and clearly the college represents a driving force in the local, regional and statewide economies.
In terms of academics, Russell points to an 83% "persistence" rate of students who continue on from Las Positas to obtain bachelor's degrees -- the highest rate among all community colleges in California. What keeps this rate high, he says, is that a majority of students enrolled in the college as freshmen come from high schools and families where college degrees are important. Plus, these students are better prepared than those enrolling in many other community colleges and can hit the academic ground running.
Las Positas is part of the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District with offices in Dublin. It started as South County Community College 40 years ago, an anniversary that Russell plans to kick off with a full year of celebrations starting April 17.