A Long and Winding Road Through Community College

Jenny Cain

Jesus Angel shows up an hour early before class on a recent weeknight at Santa Ana College. After spending a decade in and out of school, he plans to transfer following next semester.

Jesus Angel first enrolled at Rancho Santiago College in 1999, with hopes of becoming the first member of his family to get a college education.

But more than 15 years later, he is still attending the school, which has since had its name changed to Santa Ana College, and has yet to earn his associate's degree.

“I only know two or three who finished from my generation,” said Angel. “Most people who went to [high school] with me--I don’t know what happened to them. They dropped off.”

Unfortunately, his story is not unusual. While more than two-thirds of Latino high school graduates go on to higher education, they too often end up stuck in community college, unable to take the next steps toward the ultimate goal of a bachelor's degree.

Among Latinos, graduation rates from a four-year university remain “alarmingly low," said Glenda Flores, associate professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and Sociology at University of California Irvine.

While the number of Latino high school students eligible to enroll in the Cal State and UC systems has increased by more than 55.5 percent over the past decade, they are still 50 percent less likely than whites to complete a bachelor’s degree when starting at a community college.


Educators and other experts say the reasons behind these numbers are varied, including: cultural barriers; deficiencies in counseling; an over-reliance on remedial courses; and a basic lack of resources.

A Part-Time Grind

A primary culprit is work. Today, 53 percent of community college students in California are part-time, according to a national study, dubbed “Time Is The Enemy," published by Complete College, a Indiana-based organization focused on improving college graduation rates, especially among part-time students.

The study shows part-time students nationwide have a markedly lower rate of graduating compared to full-time students. While a full-time Latino student has an 11.1 percent success rate of attaining a two-year degree in three years, a part-time Latino student has a 2.6 percent chance, the study shows.

Part-time students have less access to essential institutional resources like counseling because the counseling offices are often closed in the evening, and students who work are more likely to miss class, Flores said.

None of this is news to Angel.

“Money isn’t just a problem for me, it’s a problem for all students,” he said. “We have to work and be independent and also go to school. And sometimes it gets in the way. Sometimes it makes you want to give up."

For some the work-school demands can border on the extreme.

Miguel Segura, a third-year student, works 60 hours a week at a warehouse and then attends Santa Ana College at night. “People say it’s hard to maintain,” he said while studying a pharmaceuticals textbook under the dim light of night on the cafeteria patio. “Depends on your day…”

Segura hopes to transfer next year—“fingers crossed” he said—but added he may need a fifth year if he continues working.

Jesus Gutierrez, a third year biology student, also knows the struggle of having to work full-time and go to class. Last year, Gutierrez saw his grades decline when he worked at fast food restaurant.

“I was distracted,” he said.

When asked to take on more late-night hours, he quit, a decision that may have saved his college degree. After switching to campus job, his grades improved. Mid-March, Gutierrez received an acceptance letter from University of California, Irvine.

Clearing a Path to Transfer

The goal of educators and officials, of course, is to have more people end up like Gutierrez and fewer in the positions of Angel and Segura.

To that end, Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 awarded $5 million to Santa Ana College to prepare transfer-ready students, acknowledging the school’s recent progress in improving transfer rates.

The grant is particularly important given that Santa Ana College's student body is 58 percent Latino, and roughly 16,200 Latino students are enrolled in courses that count toward a transfer or an associate's degree.

One program that has helped alleviate the problem at Santa Ana College is ¡Adelante!, which identifies students in high school who are strong academically but might have problems navigating the path to a four-year university. The program is just one initiative of the Santa Ana Partnership, a partnership that aims to drastically increase the number of college degrees held by city residents.

Students in the ¡Adelante! program get priority enrollment, mentoring, and extra counseling. Parents receive an orientation that emphasizes the importance of going to school full-time. Those who achieve a 3.0 GPA or higher are granted automatic admission into UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

Since the inception of ¡Adelante! in 2011, Santa Ana College has seen the highest rate of acceptances from Cal State Fullerton and UCI in history, said Martha Vargas, Santa Ana College's transfer Center Director.

In the 2013-14 school year, Santa Ana College had 676 transfers; including 394 Latino students. During the previous year, 539 students transferred, including 305 Latino students.

“What we know is that their retention rate is much higher. The completion rate of courses is higher. Their GPA is higher,” said Vargas of the 1,932 ¡Adelante! students in Santa Ana College's transfer pipeline.

But there are thousands of others who don’t have extra support, and thus are at risk of having their graduation or transfer date delayed. That risk is compounded by a shortage of counselors at all levels of the educational system, experts say.

The need for more counselors begins as early as elementary school said Tawnya Pringle. Pringle won the National Counselor Award and was recognized by the White House earlier this year.

“There shouldn’t be any school without a counselor. It’s not a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity,” said Pringle.

Pringle said that the dismantling of counselor programs at the elementary school level is slowing students down at a crucial juncture. She added that some schools with as many as 1,200 elementary and middle school students had only one counselor. Others had zero.

With 26 years of counseling experience, Pringle sees a caseload similar to high school counselors in the Santa Ana School District. At Pringle’s Hoover High School in San Diego, each counselor sees about 400 students.

Cutting the counseling staff, even by as little as two counselors, can have a huge effect, said Beau Menchaca, who oversees two higher education centers in the Santa Ana School District.

“When there was seven, there were 280 students per counselor. It gives you a lot time to talk to the parents and get to know the students,” Menchaca said. “Can you imagine how much more one-on-one time we could spend?”

Remedial Classes Take Their Toll

Another issue is the fact that many students are delayed because they are forced to take remedial classes in math and English before they can move on to courses that count toward their degree.

“I’m not sure how many remedial courses I’ve taken,” Angel said, as he counted at least 12 units of remedial math.

Katie Hern, the director of the California Acceleration Project, says students in California’s community colleges are being held back by the number remedial courses they are required to take.

“Being placed in that many layers of remedial courses just puts them that much farther away from the gate,” said Hern. “Attrition rates are really high in that sequence students, and students don’t get any credit towards their goal.”

At Santa Ana College, Latinos are highly concentrated in remedial courses. They account for about 58 percent of the student population, but they represent roughly 77 percent of students in some remedial courses.

Hern said the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos in remedial classes is a statewide issue.

“The fundamental thing is changing placement and the curricular structure, so students don’t get trapped in these layers of non-credit barriers of remedial courses,” said Hern. “Until we do that we will never see the gains we need to see.”

Angel is one of those students who feels eager to escape the cycle Hern describes. But he also recognizes the gains that have been made -- especially when it comes to opportunities for undocumented students.

“I feel motivated, I feel ready,” Angel said. “But at the same time, I still have a long way to go.”

Jenny Cain is a Costa Mesa-based freelance journalist. You can reach her at jnncain@gmail.com.