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.

  • Gila Jones

    I would like to know the transfer statistics for students who are the first in their families to go to college, versus those who had parents or older siblings who went to 4 year colleges, regardless of ethnicity. I believe that one of the significant reasons students fail to transfer is lack of information about precisely what classes they need in order to transfer. In my experience, CC counselors don’t always make this clear. I believe that if parents or older siblings are there to help understand the transfer process, the likelihood of transfer is greater. I have only anecdotal information behind this belief, though, and would like to see it proved or disproved with statistics.

  • Danny Bui

    3.0+ GPA for automatic admission into UCI? Seems a bit low doesn’t it? UC TAG GPA requirements require at least a 3.4 GPA.

    • David Zenger

      Janet Nguyen got in to UCI. Not only that, she claims to have graduated. Have you ever heard her speak? The bar is lower than you think.

  • PIFA123

    Community college is like this for all that go. It is for the people that can not academically cut it in a 4 year program. No one gets out in 2 years ever. First off it is loaded with students so to get the right classes takes a act of God. Second because the under achievers go here ,they have to take all these zero credit classes in English, and Math first before getting the credited courses. It is a place of limbo and discouragement but hey if you are young it is cheap and you got time to kill any way. If you need or want better and faster then pay attention in public school, work hard, get good grades,and a scholarship to a better place. Don’t look for a free pass to it like every other thing our government doles out. Forget it. Education in this country costs either you pay with money or get those scholarships. If you do not then it is off to Community college and a long long long road of frustration.

    • prado4587

      It is weird that everyone has to take remedial classes when only people who can’t pass the remedial tests have to take the remedial classes. It’s also weird that students would chose to save money by going to community college then transfering to a four year university. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/09/your-money/09money.html?_r=0

      • Prado4587, you mystify me. You assert that “everyone has to take remedial classes when only people who can’t pass the remedial tests have to take the remedial classes.” That’s nonsense. Some students come prepared for college and demonstrate that fact through some sort of mechanism (often, yes, a test). They do not require remediation. What’s weird about that? You next find it “weird” that “students would chose to save money by going to community college then transfering to a four year university.” There’s nothing weird about it. Indeed, as I explained above, the Cal State U system actually recommends that students do exactly that. And, as I suggested above (and as the article you cite makes clear), it is possible to get a fine education in the first two years of college at a community college.

    • No, community college is not for people who can’t cut it. Many students at community college can “cut it”; but they can’t afford tuition at the state universities or UC. Others attend to get vocational certificates and degrees. The notion that CCs are a dumping ground for underachievers is largely a fiction.

      I do agree, however, that it is important for young people to do well in high school so they do not get stuck in remediation. That students often are compelled to take remedial courses is not the fault of the community colleges; it is a consequence of the low rates of academic achievement at high schools. Very few students who go to UC (let alone to community colleges) avoid remedial instruction. But remediation is necessary for those who want to succeed in college-level courses, which typically require substantial reading, writing, or math. Students who do their first two years of college at my college (Irvine Valley College) and then transfer to a UC actually do better than students who started at UC. The point is that a young person can get a high quality education at a community college and then transfer successfully to a State University or UC. The State U system actually recommends to students that they do their first two years at a California community college. It is true, of course, that few manage to transfer after two years, a problem with many causes, some of them mentioned in this article. It is being expressly and directly addressed in a state-wide campaign for “student success.” In my view, none of these problems will be overcome until genuine reform occurs in K-12 education so that students arrive at college prepared to do college work.
      For an excellent book on this subject, I recommend Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World.”

    • MerseysideOC

      PIFA, I have to respectfully disagree with your take on Comm. Colleges (“CC”) being a bastion for non-achieving students. There are a myriad of students, such as myself, who benefited significantly from attending a CC. I was able to transfer to CSUF & finish my degree as a non-traditional student working full-time with a family. We must be careful not to paint this picture with so broad a brush stroke & lump every student that attends a CC into the “non-achievers” crowd.

      I would agree with your position that it can be frustrating to work your way through the CC system. With significant budget cuts, downsizing availability of courses, significant impacts on instructor-to-student ratios (class sizes), these truly are the cats among pigeons in academia today. More often than not, it does make life difficult in terms of finding the necessary courses needed to transfer to a 4-year university. However, no one ever said navigating your way through the Uni/CC system was ever going to be simple. It’s an inherent part of the education process, no one is exempt.

    • Cynthia Ward

      It is sad (and misguided) to assume that failure to pass the entry level tests for CC and being forced into remedial classes is due to a lack of effort on the part of students. I admit this is sometimes the case, but no “one size fits all” works in any population. I suspect anyone in school simply because they are expected to be there got weeded out at the high school level, and in large part those attending Community Colleges are there by choice and personal ambition. This is one of those areas where kids can be (not always but often) a product of their environment.

      I know personally of a high school math teacher who played episodes of the program “Lost” during class instead of teaching. His students routinely went on to flunk higher math classes because they lacked the basic skills that should have been learned under his instruction. Teachers in upper grades understood that getting a student from his class meant having to reteach what they missed before moving on to the concepts they were tasked with teaching at the appropriate grade level, and some learned to work around him, but for whatever reason, he was not disciplined! Complaints to the school and the district went nowhere, to my knowledge he is still teaching. Low income area schools often become the dumping grounds for teachers transferred out of the higher income schools where parents who have time and the education level to demand their child’s right to a quality education can get a bad teacher moved on, and they get placed where parents lack the time between 2 jobs to rally together and fight the administration for quality teachers. This is a multi-layered problem that goes far beyond lazy students looking for a “free pass.”

      In addition to not starting with a level playing field in terms of educational opportunities that set a student up for success in higher education, students from lower income families have far more responsibilities at home to distract them from homework, and extracurricular activities required by 4-year schools are an impossibility for many of these kids, who not only lack the funds to participate, but have no time. When a 14 year old is helping parents produce income with a cottage industry on weekends, while watching younger siblings after school weekdays, in addition to cooking, cleaning, and laundry (at a laundromat, not conducive to an environment for study) the chances for academic success plummet. We also know the side effects of stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of proper exercise and other issues experienced by low income families impedes learning functions, and attention spans. Overcrowded housing leaves little personal space to study quietly, constant worry from knowing the utilities are about to be shut off, and the instability of frequent moves trying to find the best apartment for the least amount of rent, takes its own toll. Add the general humiliation of arriving at school poorly dressed and/or without school supplies during a time in the development of maturity when “fitting in” is so essential to self-esteem, and a hyper-focus on personal appearance makes outcasts of those without the resources to dress appropriately, much less fashionably, for school. Kids who are hungry, cold (no jacket in the rain) sleep deprived, or stressed do not learn well, we know that. All of these seemingly small (to us) issues have enormous detrimental outcomes for kids living through these conditions, and it does have an effect on learning and achievement.

      No it is not always “the system,” and personal responsibility plays a part as well. On the flip side. I recently heard someone whining loudly, demanding assistance from a non-profit coalition, because when he filed for the new amnesty programs admitting he was undocumented, the school demanded he repay the discount for “in state” tuition! Since he had carried FULL TIME class loads FOR TEN YEARS, bouncing from program to program without completing any one certificate or degree, the balance owed was significant You have no idea how angry I was, as the previous week my son quit even TRYING to attend the same JC, for lack of class space. My American citizen kid cannot get classes in the schools I have paid taxes into for decades while this arrogant punk has his butt parked in programs for ten years flitting from class to class as school has become his excuse for not working or growing up, and has the nerve to whine that he is being held accountable for lying on his admissions forms and claiming the in state tuition discount for citizenship he does not carry. So yeah, there are always exceptions, but I think they are far fewer than the young adults who are there to try getting ahead in life.

      This article is more than just frustrating, it needs to be a call to action, and we need to figure out how to bridge the gap between what this population missed in high school and how to offer it now, NOT because the world owes everyone a living, but because I don’t want to grow old in a community where the next generation lacks an education, and thus lacks the ability to care for US in our “golden years.” We all benefit when our neighbors are educated, with higher incomes contributing more to the tax base, enjoying the means to care for and maintain their homes and keep the neighborhood nicer, this is one of those times when a rising tide DOES float all boats.

      Instead of finger pointing we need to figure out a solution, and somehow I doubt throwing more money at it is the answer. Anyone?