Does our community go to college? Yes! And it’s called Community College

Blog post by guest author: Catalina Ruiz-Healy

I spent this last weekend at home, recuperating from a cold. I caught up on my telenovelas  the old fashioned way since I’ve made a pact to not record them in hopes of limiting this habit and save my relationship with a gringo. As a result, I sat through hours of back-to-school commercials aimed at us, Latino families.  Clearly, our children go to school: kindergarten, middle, and high school. In fact, over 50% of children in California’s public education system are Latino. But it appears from these ads that we don’t go to college. But we do; and we go to community college.

 Of all California students who pursue higher education, more than 60% choose to do so at their local community college. California sends more of its high schools graduates to community colleges than any other state. Seven out of ten Latinos who go to college get their start at a community college, comprising nearly 35% of the nearly 2.9 million enrolled community college students.

 Why are these students invisible to marketers and the rest of us?  Well, less than 2 of 10 Latino students enrolled at a community college actually complete a certificate, an Associate’s degree, or transfer after six years, compared to 37% of whites. That’s right, 8 out of 10 Latino students will drop out. The Campaign for College Opportunity finds that of these one million, less than 15% successfully earn a certificate, an AA or transfer to a four-year university. According to The Road Ahead: Higher Education, California’s Promise, and Our Future Economy California community colleges rank 49th in the nation in terms of completion.

 This is terrible news for our community. Those who are able to earn an AA or a certificate, or transfer to a four-year university earn $500,000 more dollars over their lifetime.  And for Latinos, who make up 45 % of the state’s college-age population, earning a college degree raises income by $1.2 million over a lifetime.

This is also terrible news for our state. California is projected to have a shortage of one million trained workers. To close this gap, we need to graduate an additional 2.3 million students with bachelor degrees over the next few years.

And finally, in addition to the economic impact of an education, higher levels of educational attainment also correlate with overall higher levels of health, and civic participation.

Why do they drop out? They drop out because navigating community college is hard. Very hard.  Community college is not well designed for the actual students who attend. They are young, busy, and often responsible for their household.  The median age is 23 and falling. Close to 70% of students work full-time.  Nearly half of all students are parents. About 40% of students are the first in their families to go to college and many are underprepared. Community colleges are complicated places to navigate and students need support.

Unfortunately, due to severe budgetary constraints, community college resources devoted to identifying and assisting students in academic or financial difficulty are increasingly strained. An example is City College of San Francisco – one of California’s largest community colleges – which has a counselor-student ratio of 1: 900. Sadly, the situation at City College is not an anomaly; it’s pretty much the norm across the California system. 

Restoring funding to the community college system is part of the answer, as is thoughtfully implementing Sen. Lowenthal’s SB 1456 (which is based on the recommendations of the Student Success Task Force) with student input at all levels. We also need better high schools to produce better high school graduates. We need to encourage students to choose a goal, and make a plan the minute they step onto campus. We need intensive academic and peer support services to reach Latino students once they reach campus. Students need to know that they need to build stronger social networks on campus. Most critically, our conversations, efforts and solutions about how to increase college completion rates MUST always include community college students.

Thankfully, there are good things happening on this front. Many funders and both nonprofit and private sector organizations are working by leveraging the strengths of our Latino youth: resilience, grit, determination and a hunger to learn and contribute to their families. They know that with adequate support and equal opportunity, Latino youth will thrive and succeed in college, and fulfill the potential we know they represent: our future public and private sector workforce, innovators, civic leaders, and neighbors.

But that is the topic of my next blog, if they’ll have me back. Stay tuned…


Catalina Ruiz-Healy is Vice President at Rappaport Family Foundation, where the foundation invests in community college leadership and advocacy, and is Founder + CEO of GradGuru, a mobile platform that helps community college students finish school faster.