Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California’s Community Colleges

October 2010

California Must Increase Educational Attainment – Community Colleges are Key 

The future of California depends heavily on increasing numbers of Californians with certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees. Educational attainment in California has been declining with each younger generation – a statistic that bodes poorly for the state’s economic competitiveness. It is essential to increase educational attainment among the Latino population, as current levels are relatively low and the Latino share of the workingage population in California is projected to grow from 34% currently to 50% by 2040. With nearly one-fourth of the nation’s community college students enrolled in California, success of the Obama Administration’s college attainment agenda depends on California increasing completion rates and reducing performance gaps in its 112 community colleges.

Data-Driven Decisions are Gaining Momentum – California Can Join the Effort

State actions to increase college completion are growing, with 23 states (though not California) signed on to Complete College America, and other foundation-led initiatives involving still more states and college systems. These initiatives are helping states use data to understand how students, and which students, make, or fail to make, progress toward completion and to apply that knowledge by changing institutional practices. These efforts have identified policy change as a key element in the completion agenda. Policy that is well aligned with completion goals can enhance college efforts to increase student success, while poorly-aligned policies can thwart the best on-the-ground efforts. This report models how data can be used to identify ways to increase student success. It analyzes outcomes for over a quarter of a million degree-seeking students in the California Community Colleges (CCC), tracking those who entered in 2003-04 over six years. We analyze student progress through intermediate “milestones” as well as three completion outcomes: certificates, associate degrees, and transfer.

Key Findings: Rates too low; disparities too high; analysis points to solutions

  • Too few students reach milestones; racial/ethnic disparities abound
    • Too many students fail to complete. Six years after enrolling, 70% of degree-seeking students had not completed a certificate or degree, and had not transferred to a university (about 75% of black students and 80% of Latinos). Most had dropped out; only 15% of the non-completers were still enrolled.
    • Critical milestone is missed. Only 40% of degree-seeking students had earned at least 30 college-level credits at the CCC, the minimum needed to show a significant economic benefit. A lower share of Latino (35%) and black (28%) students reached this milestone.
    • Latinos face more bumps at the end of the road. The 30 credit threshold can provide “momentum” for completing an educational program. However, fewer Latinos who reach that point complete a certificate, degree, or transfer (47%), compared to white (60%), Asian-Pacific Islander (58%), and black (53%) students.
  • Transfer does not mean completing two years of study (as we commonly assume), especially for black students (pp. 6-7).
    • Transfer success is low. About 23% of degree seekers transferred to a university, and Latino students were only half as likely as white students to transfer (14% vs 29%).
    • Majority of students do not follow Master Plan intent. Many who did transfer did not first complete a transfer curriculum (43% completed it) at the CCC, meaning that “transfer” signifies something less than the completion of the first two years of a bachelor’s degree as was intended in the design of California’s Master Plan. Only half (52%) of transfer students transferred to a California public university.
    • For-profit sector’s role is growing. An increasing share of transfer students is enrolling in the for-profit sector, where what little is known about student outcomes provides ample reason for concern about poor outcomes and high indebtedness. Black students are especially likely to transfer to for-profit institutions, and to leave the CCC system with fewer credits completed. A complex transfer process and enrollment limits at UC and CSU help account for this trend.
  • Demographics are not destiny (p. 8)
    • Completion rates and levels of disparity vary. The widely varying rates of completion and levels of disparity across colleges of similar size and similar shares of under-represented minority students suggest that some colleges find ways to be more effective at helping students of all backgrounds make progress.
  • Patterns of student enrollment provide clues for improvement (p. 9) 
    • Students who followed certain enrollment patterns did much better. 59% of students who earned at least 20 credits in their first year completed a certificate, degree, or transfer within six years compared to 21% who did not; 55% of students who passed college math within two years completed, compared to only 21% who did not; for English the numbers were 50% and 20%.
    • But few students followed the successful patterns, with large racial/ethnic gaps. Only 25% of degree seekers earned at least 20 credits in the first year; 29% passed at least one college-level math course within two years; 36% passed at least one college-level English course within two years (black students were the least likely to follow these patterns); on average, degree-seeking students dropped or failed over one third of the credits they attempted – blacks completed only one-half the credits they attempted.

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