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Building Pathways to Transfer: Community Colleges that Break the Chain of Failure for Students of Color

Authors: Patricia Gándara, Elizabeth Alvarado, Anne Driscoll, Gary Orfield
Date Published: February 14, 2012

This paper calls for doing five things that we believe are necessary to shift the focus to the needs of the ever-growing numbers of African American and Latino students who enter the postsecondary system from K-12 schools that have not prepared them for college.
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This study followed all freshman community college students in California who had demonstrated the intent to transfer from 1996, 1997, and 1998. Outcomes were assessed for each of the three entering cohorts after six years (2002-2004) and students were linked with their high schools of origin and the 4-year colleges to which they transferred. We divided high schools into five categories based on their API (California Academic Performance Index) scores, the proportion of students whose parents had a college degree and their level of minority segregation. The lowest quintile high schools had low API scores, few parents with BA degrees, and high minority segregation; the highest quintile high schools had the inverse.

Clearly, the quality of the high school resources was highly related to the chances of transferring to a 4-year college. And the likelihood of attending a high or low “quality” high school was strongly related to race and ethnicity. One third of Latinos attended high schools in the low resource category, as did 1 in 5 Black students.  By contrast, only 1 in 25 Whites and 1 in 10 Asians went to such schools. At the other end of the scale, 1 in 7 Whites went to high resource high schools, as did 1 in 10 Asians.  Only 3 in 100 Latinos and Blacks had the benefit of attending a high resource high school.

Some students, however, diverted from the usual pattern of low performing high school to low performing community college and attended a higher transfer college. Moreover, some community colleges demonstrated significantly greater success with students of color from low performing high schools than other community colleges.  In this study, we set out to ask:  (1) What causes some students to choose higher transfer community colleges than the college most students from their high school attend? (2) What do these higher transfer colleges do to effect better outcomes for students of color coming from these high need/low-performing high schools?

Lessons from Case Studies

Five colleges were identified as disproportionately transferring students of color from low performing/high needs high schools.  It was to note that three colleges were disproportionately successful with Latino students, and two colleges with African American students, but none was equally successful with both groups.  Two colleges were located in urban centers (both of these were most successful with African Americans), two in urban-suburban areas, and one in a rural area of the state.  The colleges ranged in size from relatively small (9500) to large (32,000). Each campus had its own success story, and some probably would not qualify today as successful in transfer because of significant changes that have occurred on the campuses.  Overall, there were more differences than similarities among campuses with respect to strategies for supporting the transfer function. However, there were five findings that stand out:

(1)    The colleges that showed disproportionate success in transferring African Americans and Latinos from low performing/high need high schools were not necessarily those with strong reputations for transfer. One of the central findings in the literature on community college transfer is that “creating a transfer culture” is key.  However, we were surprised to find that some colleges that are known for their transfer cultures did not come up in our data.  It may be that creating a sense of family (belonging) for these students is more important than simply creating a more generalized transfer culture. What we saw in colleges that were successful with these students was, for the most part, a very specific dedication to this population, with culturally appropriate interventions and counseling strategies that were targeted to their specific needs.

(2)    Community college outreach was in many cases the reason that students came to the college in the first place, and connected with appropriate services once there.  Outreach from successful colleges convinced students that transfer was much more likely on their campus and redirected some students from low quintile schools that would have otherwise gone elsewhere.  Notably, outreach counselors were often mentioned as the only real college counseling that students at these low performing schools received.  Without the outreach counselors from the community colleges, students would have had little idea of either how or why to apply to college.

(3)    Strong transfer counseling is the sine quo non of community college transfer, yet it is wholly inadequate and this is not always just because of resource limitations. At every campus that had been effective at transferring underrepresented students from low performing high schools, effective counseling was cast as the primary reason for this success.  Yet, we were impressed by how many students did not receive these services and how many problems there were in delivering the services.  Transfer centers – a cornerstone of the state’s strategies for increasing transfer—were usually too underfunded to contribute significantly to counseling students.

(4)    Every campus immediately pointed to its special support programs for underrepresented students as key to increasing its transfer rate for these students. In an evident acknowledgement of the chronic problem of providing sufficient counseling to adequately support the transfer function, every campus we visited immediately noted their special programs as their primary source of support for ensuring success and transfer for low income and minority students.  For all low income and minority students this was the EOPS and CARE programs that provide counseling, financial aid, and other support services such as child care (CARE).  However, programs that specifically targeted Latino (Puente, Adelante) or African American (Unity, Umoja) students were touted as being most effective in pushing transfer for these students.  Yet these programs generally reach only a small fraction of the students who could benefit from them.

(5)    Developmental education is the elephant in the living room for transfer of minority students from low performing/high need high schools. Almost all students of color from low performing high school need some academic remediation when they enter community college and this impedes transfer. For example, among those students who initially test just one level below college level math and English, less than half will complete the courses they need to transfer (  In spite of the relative success of the campuses we visited, developmental education remained a challenge for all.  But for more effective practices in developmental education, these campuses would undoubtedly be even more successful.  Relatively little innovation in this area was seen at the case study colleges, with the exception of one that was experimenting with intensive review courses in English and math before testing students for remedial course placement and conducting diagnostic assessment to determine the specific areas of need for remediation and then providing students with modules targeting those specific needs rather than whole courses.  It appears that these practices can significantly reduce the time that students are in a developmental education sequence.

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