Community colleges—affordable, flexible, conveniently located—are the schools of choice for half of all Latino students enrolled in higher education.
In 2008, more than 1 million Latinos were attending two-year colleges, an increase of 85% in eight years, according to the U.S. Census. “Most Latino college students are still first generation college students. They are navigating the pursuit of a college degree while working and handling significant family responsibilities,” says Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education.
Unlike many four-year universities, community colleges are designed for students who need more flexibility or cannot afford high tuition rates, Brown notes. Many Latino students also prefer colleges that are close to home.
According to a 2002 Pew Hispanic Center report, “Community colleges and other two-year institutions typically feature a number of characteristics that help explain their appeal to Latino students. As a rule, tuition is lower compared to four-year colleges. Degree programs are often designed to accommodate part-time students, and classes are scheduled in the evenings to accommodate students with full-time jobs. Also, many two-year institutions offer courses that aim more at improving job skills rather than at advancing a student towards a degree.”
“The fact that there is a lot of emphasis on community college is a good thing for Latino students,” says Brown. “Students go there; there are more Latino administrators; it’s a real convergence.”
“But what do we make of it?” Brown says, lamenting the fact that, while community colleges offer many advantages for Latino students, the drop-out rate is high and the transfer rate to four-year universities is low.
Latinos who begin their college careers at two-year colleges are twice as likely to drop out as those who start at four-year schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
A 2007 UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center study found only 10 percent of Latinos successfully transferred from a community college to a four-year school in 2002-2003—half the rate for white students.
“Very few students succeed in transferring and going on to get their baccalaureate degree,” notes Brown.
About half of Latino students who begin at two-year college quit before earning a degree.
Students may encounter trouble transferring credits from community college to four-year institutions, or run out of financial aid before being able to complete their degrees.
“If a student says they want to be an engineer and they start off at a community college, the mechanics of it will be much harder,” says Brown.
The authors of the UCLA study argue that community colleges need to offer better transfer curriculum and counseling and institutional support to help students make the transition to four-year schools.
Brown counsels students to look at their college choices in terms of the big picture. Instead of choosing a community college for its convenience, examine the degree programs. Do they match with your larger goal? Do four-year colleges accept transfer credits from that school?
When children start kindergarten, their goal is not just to get to first grade, but to graduate from high school, Brown says. Students contemplating college choices should plan their education strategy using the same long-term view.
“Think about your goal. If you want to be an engineer or a teacher, start by asking yourself: what do I need to complete the degree program,” advises Brown. “Look at the experience of a community as one step to a larger goal.”
While reaching that ultimate goal may be difficult, it’s not impossible. According to the UCLA study, between 1990 and 2003, one of four Chicanos who received a doctorate began post-secondary education at the community college level.